Steeleye Span must have more lives than a cat. Every so often the group seems to have called it a day, but, like a phoenix, they rise again. So here they are, for the umpteenth time, with They Called Her Babylon that their record company claims is to be a classic Steeleye Span album.
The group is a five piece this time. Original member Maddy Prior is joined by Rick Kemp and Peter Knight from the glorious days and newcomers Ken Nicol of Albion Band-fame on guitar and Liam Genockey on drums. Given the group’s status in folk rock history let me give you a track-by-track run-through of the album.
“Van Diemen’s Land” refers to Tasmania, an island to which the English transported convicts during the first half of the 19th century. Maddy Prior sings a lyric adapted from a traditional song to a new tune, presumably by Nicol. It opens quite calmly, but builds up to a powerful, rocking chorus. The group uses their dynamic abilities cleverly through the track, quietening things down after the first chorus. They end it with an instrumental coda with some nice syncopations — if not breathtaking at least an opener to catch your attention.
“Samain,” written and sung by Kemp, takes us back to pre-Christian times, to the holiday now known as Halloween. It is a rocky track, with the same type of beat as “All Around My Hat” and “Hard Times of All England”. I must confess I do not care much for the verses, but the chorus is very strong, with lovely harmonies, and the riff work at the start is excellent.
With “Heir of Linne” we are back in traditional territory. A ballad developed and adapted by Prior, it is a smashing story about a man who sells of his inheritance, squandering all the money he gets for it in less than a year. Destitute, he thinks of killing himself when his luck turns. Both tune and backing or more traditional than on the first two tracks, something that fits the tale very well. This is a track to play over and over again.
“Bride’s Farewell” is an attempt by Knight to fit traditional words to a tune in 5/4-time by himself. It is on the soft and gentle side, and you will not discover the tricky time signature unless you try to tap your feet to it. But in spite of the nice harmonies on the chorus this one does not do much for me. So let’s move on to…
… the title track “They Called Her Babylon”. Written and sung by Nicol it is based on an event during the English Civil War in the 1640s, the siege of Latham House. From the opening guitar chords you feel this is classic Steeleye stuff. Again the group use their dynamics and together with the best chorus on the album everything works wonders. Not only the best chorus, also the best track, melodic, rhythmic and powerful at the same time, well worthy of being given the honour of title track.
“Mantle of Green” is a fine slow ballad related to songs like “Claudy Banks”, with the girl not recognizing her true love when he returns after some years. This time the man has taken part in the battle of Waterloo. Prior’s singing is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and some fiddle from Knight.
The shortest track on the album is “Bede’s Death Song”, a single short verse, reputedly written by Bede himself on his death bed. Steeleye gives it a medieval feeling with some drone chords and vocals reminding you of “Gaudete”. And before you get into it, it is over in a mere 40 seconds. I am not sure about its inclusion here. IMHO they should either have extended it, or dropped it.
“Diversus and Lazarus” is another ballad, this one taking its storyline from the Bible. Kemp has set the ballad to new music. The track opens with a powerful guitar riff. The overall feeling of the track is that of some of the epic tracks on “Now We Are Six”, but it does not quite reach the same heights as the best tracks on that album, in spite of another smashing chorus.
I am sorry to say that I think including Carolan’s “Si Begh Si Mohr” on the album was a mistake. It is a marvellous tune, but Steeleye does not add anything to it, and Knight spoils it by using to many glissandos, sometimes sounding almost out of tune on the higher notes.
“Child Owlet” is another old ballad that reminds me of the sounds of “Now We Are Six,” but this time it works better. The track builds up over the verses, with a fine electric guitar solo halfway through. Knight’s fiddle is used for chord work behind Prior’s solo voice. It’s a track that proves Maddy can still deliver the goods.
And to finish off there is a nice, but unspectacular version of “What’s the Life of a Man”. Opening with an acoustic guitar and the tune played by the fiddle, the lead vocals are taken in turns by Prior and Knight. In spite of the whole band being present by the time they reach the chorus it is a restful final, a track to calm things down, on the tradition of “Saucy Sailor” which closed one side on “Below the Salt” and “Hares on the Mountain” from “Parcel of Rouges”.
So is it a classic Steeleye Span album? Well, it is too early to tell. Classic albums earn their status as time passes. Had this been released in the early 1970s it would have been a classic, but I would not put it above albums like “Please to See the King”, “Below the Salt” and “Commoner’s Crown”, but history will certainly rank it higher than “All Around My Hat”, “Rocket Cottage”, “Sails of Silver” and a few others. It marks a reborn Steeleye Span the Rock Group and the album will surely please Steeleye fans all over the world, and promoted the right way it may even gain them some new friends. I will certainly keep on playing it through the summer.
(Park Records, 2004)