Album Review : Matachin - Bellowhead*****
Bellowhead, are they a band or an orchestra ? There are 11 members of the British folk outfit that have had considerable popular success on the folk festival circuit in the past couple of years.
Folk music then, yes, but not as you know it. Matachin shows Bellowhead in more democratic form than on their debut album Burlesque. Band leader Jon Spiers explains that every band member has contributed to every song on Matachin, and that when there are differences over music or arrangements then having an odd number of band members means there is always a clear decision when they have to put something to a vote.
What are Bellowhead then for the uniniated, well, it's a complex thing. Perhaps if you imagine a dark Victorian circus, with singer Jon Boden approaching the audience, hat at a rakish angle and a twisted smile upon his face, with a wave of his hand a curtain sweeps back and reveals his ten henchmen and their oddball collection of instruments (bouzouki ? helicon ?? frying pan ???) which they set about in a seemingly random but rather satisying manner, well it's a bit like that, but it's a bit like a lot of other influences as well.
Bellowhead's songs on this album are all re-arrangments of traditional folk songs, but it's tradition turned on it's head and given a spin and a glug of booze. The album gets off to a fine start with Fakenham Fair, Roll Her Down The Bay and I Drew My Ship Across The Harbour but it really gets into its madcap stride in the middle of the album. The splendidly ragtag Kafoozalum/The Priest's Miss sounds fine to bellow along to after a few pints of real ale. Rudyard Kipling's poem Cholera Camp gets reworked in an offbeat slightly military, slightly Monty Python style and is for me the high point of Matachin.
Whisky Is The Life Of Man is a rollicking, alcohol drenched tale of booze driven misfortune, like Fish era Marillion with added humour and Widow's Curse is just nasty, nasty, nasty, Jon Spiers describes it as "an absolutly horrible, verbose Dickensian story of twisted evil, fire and brimstone," wow, well there's three of my favourite song elements right there.
Matachin is a diverse and absorbing album, Bellowhead's sound isn't really akin to any band I can name, it is filled with humour, but quite black humour. The song arrangements might easily have become cluttered and busy with so many talented band members having input, but instead the conglomerate have produced a varied and airy sound. One musician in particular must come in for extra praise, drummer Pete Flood uses the sort of offbeat rythms that Lars Ulrich employed back when Metallica were really good, his strange drum patterns bring added layers of interestingness to Bellowhead's overall sound.
What would make you actually go into a shop and buy a folk album for goodness sake ? Well, maybe you're feeling a bit adventurous, maybe you secretly yearn for something really out of the ordinary, something twisted, well come on in folks, Boden & Spiers dark and secret shadow show awaits.....