3 Apr 2016
The Owl Service - His Pride. No Spear. No Friend.
Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)
The Owl Service almost single handedly resurrected the deep vein of the acidic and wyrd within the tradition of UK folk rock with their superb and highly influential début album, 'A Garland of Song'. Here were a band that were once again taking the richly dark ballads of these lands and creating a musical framework that matched the magical, murderous and mud splattered content of the words and stories. A series of essential EPs followed, culminating in the richly detailed and majestic 'A View From The Hill' before the Owls took a sabbatical, emerging in various alternate musical forms (such as Greanvine) and running the splendid Stone Tape label. And then, as though called back when Albion most needed them, they returned with this, their third long player 'His Pride. No Spear. No Friend' (the title a quote from Alan Garner's classic novel 'The Owl Service'). An arguably more stripped back and more traditional recording though potentially all the more affecting and powerful for this, this new album cements The Owl Service as the UK's foremost exponents of folk rock, although, as we shall see, they are this and yet so much more.
A clash of drums and cymbals begins the album with clear intent, introducing a truly beautiful and heartbreaking interpretation of 'The Widow's Lament' (a ballad best perhaps best known for its use across the opening credits of cult favourite 'The Wicker Man'.) A mindblowingly perfect vocal from Jo Lepine is exquisitely framed by dramatic drum beaks and fluid, crystalline guitar that allows the track to reveal its easy glide and splendour. Another Child Ballad, 'The False Knight' also benefits from stalwart drumming and gorgeous vocal harmonies from Diana Collier, its verses cascading and reeling around the chiming guitar notes that add an air of timelessness and grace to this rendition. Next, a shimmering and chilling cover of Midwinter's 'The Skater' (from their legendary 'Waters Of Sweet Sorrow' album) invokes an icy grandeur as the hint of strings and organ build the tension alongside robust bass, percussion and echoed guitar. You can almost feel the winter air upon your skin, such an atmosphere is ably conjured here. A version of folk standard 'Geordie' (previously recorded by acts such Trees), consisting almost solely of an aquatic sounding Hammond backing and Laura Hulse Davis's pure and evocative vocals lifts the hairs on the back of this listener's neck before an explosive and effective version of Cademon's 'Sea Song' (from the Edinburgh based acid folk band's self titled 70s debut which has been described s 'the holy grail' of acid folk) start-stops with delicious drama, molten lead guitar lines, pounding drums and Jo Lepine's wistful vocals creating a hugely thrilling piece of psych folk. A masterful version of Shirley And Dolly Collins' 'Salisbury Plain' is a melancholy gem, a highwayman's lament sparsely yet carefully framed with just the right amount of percussion and drifting, haunting organ.
This spare use of sound is a feature of the album; the songs feel stripped back compared to earlier Owl excursions which commonly displayed rich layers of instrumentation that could (and often did) include sitar, keyboards and a variety of stringed things. Yet this more minimal approach doesn't lessen the power of these interpretations and songs; rather it allows the words and the emotions to breathe and come alive within the windswept beauty of the backdrop provided.
'Living By The Water' is a delicate and heartfelt rendition of the Anne Briggs number, a steady, pulsating guitar and rhythm providing a rich heartbeat to a yearning and affecting vocal performance from Michelle Bappoo. Long time Owl Service collaborator and Mellow Candle vocalist Alison O'Donnell takes centre stage on an epic and wide-screen 'Hugh Of Lincoln', perhaps the most overtly psych song on the album as a reverberated organ drone weaves throughout, gradually layered by skeletal guitar and O’Donnell’s flanged and echoed vocals. The growing tension is expertly handled, another benefit of the 'less is more' approach is that a sudden flurry of tambourine lets the song take a dramatic propulsion forward or a sudden unexpected twist in mood. The album closes with a triumphant yet dread filled 'Willie's Lady', an especially dark Child Ballad concerned with both deception and witchcraft. A spectral and emotive beauty, this song easily stands as one of The Owl Service's best yet.
There is an earthiness to 'His Pride. No Spear. No Friend.' that allows this album to sound as though it could have been recorded at any point in the last forty years. And yet, as with previous recordings, The Owl Service are not just your average folk rock band. The use of drums reflects more of a post rock/ experimental timbre and the guitar tone too evokes the panoramic soundscapes of both Godspeed You Black Emperor and Wolves In The Throne Room, not bands you would normally associate alongside songs previously performed by Shirley Collins or with music in the vein of Fairport Convention or The Albion Band. Yet this is what The Owl Service do that is so special, they add their own slant to the genre and are not afraid to take this musically wherever it needs to go in order to best service the song. Their own influences are equally as allowed to become a part of their musical tapestry and in this sense they are amongst the most forward looking of current psych folk acts; they are truly creating a new folk music as opposed to retreading old standards. You should really be alongside them on this journey; 'His Pride. No Spear. No Friend'. is another triumph, an equal to the essential first two Owl Service albums and yet another new step in their unique and fascinating trajectory. A someone once mentioned in the town of Twin Peaks, The Owls are not what they seem indeed.
Available now as a CD with gatefold sleeve (an amzing bargain at £1!), a limited edition double LP on 180g black vinyl in high gloss sleeve or a download at the band's Bandcamp page.