Following that eternal quest to bring to the publics attention some of the worthy yet obscure bands and albums that have helped colour my life so far, we arrive at number 84 in the catalogue, Blyth Powers memorable masterpiece, Pastor Skull. With an ever-shifting line up resulting in an ever-different flavour to their albums, 1993’s Pastor Skull remains as always quintessentially English, yet with a dark underbelly. It is story telling in a folk tradition, but is a much more complex beast than that. If the word folk brings to mind beardy, Arran sweater, national health glass wearing men called Ken playing hammer dulcimers and singing fol-de-rol lyrics then this is album is for you. Why? Because it will take that stereotypical image and blows it out of the water. Blyth Power has always been a collection of punks, radicals and musical agitators re working musical traditions to their own rules. Folk music is in there but so are raw punk guitars, rock power riffs, hippy harmonies and a lyrical intelligence rarely found in modern music. For this outing the band were down to a four piece. The leader of the pack, Josef Porta, drummer, lyricist, wit and storyteller up front as usual and long term bassist “Martin “Protag” Neish providing a solid beat and intricate four string frame work for the other two. The two newer boys came in the guise of Darren Tansley, medieval fixated keyboard player and the enigmatically named WOB, now a successful solo act on guitar, both also contributing to the sumptuous backing vocals.
The cover and the various inlay artwork betrays the feeling of the album, simple drawings of medieval scenes give you a clue to some of the direction the songs will take, though in essence the subject matter spans periods ancient and modern but when Tansley’s keyboards hit full flight, a medieval feeling washes through the proceedings. A sustained guitar note builds before launching into the punked out tones of Royal George and immediately Porta`s ability with the pen becomes apparent.
Stag broke cover and the coursers brayed
We met out hunting on Boxing Day
Beneath the dripping trees a tryst arranged
And while we spoke our passion led the bloodhounds astray
The story eludes to the pastimes of the Prince Regent, the future King George the Fourth; a man that they claim “had the misfortune to be born into an age which predated train spotting and became, as a result, a man of easy virtue.” The song rocks as well as any Green Day or Good Charlotte number and manages to retain a cultural identity that seems to be missing from the modern Americanised dross that is the usual product of British bands today. Why settle for baseball caps and drive by shootings? If you want music that tugs at the soul of Englishness then play on.The title track follows, a more laid back affair, the bass laying down a solid foundation for a series of layered keyboards, a crunchy rhythm guitar and series of glorious vocal accompaniments and subtle changes of direction. The story starts off with the usual tail of a knight riding into town to slay a nearby dragon. On doing so he finds that the local Pastor is an animal rights activist and the dragon was not a threat to the local inhabitants. A modern message wrapped up in an old tale, a common trick from this band. The Man Who Came In Third is a political rant, charging off in a timing that will make even the most ardent wallflowers want to strut their stuff. Even when dealing with the heaviest of subject matter, the songs don’t get bogged down or self-indulgent. Clever lyrics and a good tune are not mutually exclusive. A complete change of direction comes with Gabriel the Angel, a folk/country shuffle, almost a square dance feel to it and a musical rendition of what might have taken place if the murder of the biblical Cain had been brought before a modern court. Strange territory indeed but a great song strengthened by the sublime fiddle playing of that punk legend, Attila the Stockbroker.
The next two songs have a war theme, In the Lines of Graves is a homage to those who don’t return from battle, a complex delivery of folk styled vocals coming at you from all directions over a punk tune with a piano making itself obvious and a distinctly anti war sentiment
“Cowards died there too, shot through with bullets, shrapnel and shells, and it’s these men we should remember when we march through the village in November. The heroes can look after themselves.”
Eventually this melts into the sounds of battle over a chugging guitar and the story of a soldier embroiled in the Thirty Years War is presented. Building slowly over a guitar, the song finally explodes into an epic rock anthem as the story unfolds, a tale of bile and spite, betrayal and remorse, challenging, different and not the most immediate of songs but once you get your head around Blyth Powers way of doing things you will never go back to Britney Spears again. But then if you have kept with me this far you are hardly likely to be on her wavelength anyway.General Winter, for my money is the highlight of the album and contains everything that the band does best. A thoughtful pacey song, great guitar riff, haunting distant keyboards and those unique harmonies and for once the subject matter is straightforward, winter. But being Blyth Power this is the winter of Georgian Britain, its churches, barracks and villages all being no match for the greatest general of all, General Winter.
“Then General Winter takes command
Swings me round again to the cavalry band
He snaps his heels as he proffers his hand
White-jacketed waiters line the walls
With sherry wine subdue the officer corps
As we circle slowly round the shadowy hall”
The opening to Sunne in Splendour sees the band at their most folk ridden and opens with an a cappella rendition of a seventeenth century poem of love and coyness before charging off in typical fashion in a veiled critique of the House of York’s most recent export, the names have been left out to avoid lawsuits, the Sunne in Splendour alluding to the emblem of that once noble house and a tabloid newspaper. Stonehaven follows, a mad violin driven thrash, a song that was reworked to better effect for the following album, Paradise Razed. Vane Tempest and Pandora’s People are typical Blyth stuff which I wont dwell on as I’m becoming conscious that the length of the review is running away with me, but I must leave time to extol the virtues of the final track, Stitching In Time. For me both one of the most simple and one of the best songs the band has produced. As a gentle acoustic guitar drifts into earshot, Josef narrates the story of the Greek army outside Troy, their ten-year siege and their decision to build, of all things, a giant wooden horse. It kicks into a mid paced jaunt with some spiralling bass work and a soaring heavenly violin as in hindsight the protagonists look back on the battles of their youth.
“In story now and song
Scamander flows along
Though the walls of the siege bound city have fallen down
And though our arms are red with rust
Still in a patient God we trust
So for a cause long forgotten until Kingdom comes around
We’ll stand our ground”
The world depicted by Blyth Power is the one of the history books, and that is their main folk connection, in reality all sorts of styles and influences grace their songs, but above all it is a unique and challenging yet thoroughly rewarding album, with a charm and quality all of its own and an identity that screams of its birth place. A stitch in time to ward off vacuous Americana devoid of soul and passion? A finger in the dyke against the wave of bland musical dross? Maybe, but I’ll be right behind then when the dam breaks.