Tag Archives: album review

This week’s featured artist: folk musician Mel Biggs – new album ‘From Darkness Comes Light’

Mel Biggs, who has recorded several albums as part of acclaimed trio Moirai, is one of the UK’s leading diatonic accordion players. She releases From Darkness Comes Light her debut solo album on 1st October. Over twelve stunningly inventive instrumental tracks, Mel Biggs takes us on a journey through the seasonal changes, both natural and cultural over the course of the year. Accompanied by fiddle, mandolin, piano accordion, guitar and cittern she invites us to join her on this deeply personal and evocative journey.

I ask Mel how the album came about:

This album has taken over a decade to be made. And when I say that, I’m not talking about the physical album, which took 9-ish months in lockdown, but the mental health journey I’ve been on since my early 20s. The darkness of living with anxiety and depression, a binge eating disorder, and menstrual health issues brought forth the light that is my music and composition. Further to this, and rather poignantly, the album’s completion earlier this year coincided with me being diagnosed with ADHD and Autism. Knowing this has given me the missing pieces on my past diagnoses and, well, literally everything in my life! Especially my sensory crossovers which influence my creativity so much.

The diatonic accordion (or melodeon) became my closest friend and confidante early on when I wasn’t able to understand and process the difficult emotions I experienced. It gave me a way to escape and meditate on the natural world around me. The healing power of the great outdoors is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. A sunny day in spring watching washing dry on the line brought forth Shivelight In Spring. Being high up in the Norwegian mountains breezed Oppland Upland into my brain. Zoning out of a difficult day whilst viewing winter’s golden light in the garden gave me Silver Linings. Meditating on the heat haze obscuring the view out the back of my house shone Shimmer into my life. Let me travel the world with my accordion and I’d write and write and be very content!

Mel fills us in on the themes that emerged for the album:

When it came to making the album, I looked at what material I had and realised the running theme was light states in nature through the seasons. Each piece relates to a different point in my personal discovery journey. From Darkness Comes Light is a symbiosis of seasons, nature, and light and their combined effect on mood and mental health recovery. It’s also become a statement to myself of never giving up on finding those missing pieces to understanding and accepting yourself for exactly who you are. Feels like a pretty big thing to say about an album of instrumental folk music, but I prefer using sounds to words any day!

From Darkness Comes Light released 1st October 2021 by Talking Cat Recordings

Available from: https://melbiggsmusic.co.uk/product-category/cds/

Mel Biggs – diatonic accordions, vocals 

Kat Biggs – piano accordion 

Jon Loomes – guitar, cittern 

Bridget Slater – fiddle 

David Squirrell – mandolin, octave mandola 

All tracks written & arranged by Mel Biggs (except track 4 which is Trad.). 

 Keep the conversation going about mental health & follow the ongoing visual work via the blog: www.melbiggsmusic.co.uk 

April 16TH: Story of an 80s heavy metal band – new CD out ‘Epitaph’

Playing their first gig in April 1985, the band April 16TH were late to the party in terms of the UK’s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal scene. By then many of the bands that had started up in the late 70s and early 80s had either packed up, moved on or dramatically changed their style – bringing in keyboard flourishes and, with an eye on the more lucrative American market, a more commercial sheen. April 16TH resolutely didn’t go down this route, opting for a gutsy raw feel reminiscent of the likes of early Tygers of Pan Tang et al.

April 16TH at the Marquee

April 16TH were John Fisher (drums), Chris Harris (guitar), Lawrence Mills (lead guitar), Eric Puffett bass) and Dave Russell (vocals) – and unlike many bands of the era their line-up remained stabled throughout their entire tenure 1985-91.

“Musically APRIL 16TH always preferred a raw guitar base sound to that of the cleaner and ‘less real’ sound afforded by keyboards. The bands rough edge was further enhanced by the use of a single vocalist instead of the more traditional backing vocals set up,” states the band’s retrospective biog.

“Philosophically the band truly believed in the power of rock music as a form of expression. Their stage presentation was a totally unpretentious and honest, yet powerful and exciting experience. “APRIL 16TH” despised the use of stage clothing and over-hyped theatrical performances with larger-than-life egos. At gigs you could find and could talk to the band at the bar or the pub next door, not locked away in the dressing room.”

APRIL 16TH meet Lemmy

Gigging extensively around the south east the band’s early recordings began generating interest from regional radio stations and bookings started to come from further afield. An album Sleepwalking followed in January 1989 which led to further exposure for the band.  Radio One invited April 16TH to record a session for the Tommy Vance Rock Show and there was also a slot for London Weekend Television. Sadly, however, financial woes put paid to any future success, bankruptcy forced their departure from the music scene and April 16TH played their last ever gig at the Cartoon in Croydon on Saturday 13th July 1991.

The story doesn’t quite end thee however and thirty years later we now have a newly released CD chronicling all of the band’s studio recordings.

Why now? I asked guitarist, Chris Harris, who kindly sent me the CD.

Chris: “During our ‘career’ we produced two audio products. The first was a C60 cassette recorded at Cherry Studios in Croydon that we called the Cherry Jam tape. The second was a vinyl LP also recorded at Cherry Studios entitled Sleepwalking. The Cherry Jam tape was essentially a gig getting Demo tape but the Sleepwalking album was a ‘FOR SALE’ LP released by our record company – High Dragon Records of Paris. After the band went bankrupt it was always my intention to self-release a CD containing all the tracks that appeared on both the C60 and the LP. But this dream did not become a reality until July 2021.”

The Cherry Jam tape cover

 “I don’t like the word compilation,” adds Chris. “The title Epitaph was chosen to reflect the sombre memory of our demise and to present all the (recorded) material that the band had available. And so Epitaph was compiled by using the original 1986/87 master tapes. The CD is an exact duplication of the original sound of the band and was not enhanced or re-mixed in any way.”

The Sleepwalking vinyl album

Although not one of the big names of the era Epitaph is a hugely enjoyable compendium of April 16TH’s recorded output and should be of interest to anyone with a love for the NWOBHM scene and in particular those who enjoy those bands who went for the hard, rootsy, gutsy approach and weren’t like the proverbial kids in a sweetshop when they got inside a recording studio but stuck to the basics.

Visit April the band’s Facebook page at April 16TH

And join their Facebook group here

Singer-songwriter: album review – Robert Gray ‘Short Stories’

With his style being described as “sketchbook pop” the music of singer-songwriter, Robert Gray, combines elements of folk, jazz and blues. Playing in a variety of bands on the London live scene, he released in album in partnership with Australian singer-songwriter, Troy Utz, back in 2003. After a break from music and a subsequent move to Germany with his young family in 2012, Gray was inspired to begin writing and recording again.

Short Stories is his debut solo album. Some ten years in the making the album has been recorded at a number of home studios in Britain and Germany. The songs range from the highly personal: the birth of his son, a love-song to his wife on the theme of growing old together, his feelings as his young daughter lay in hospital for an operation – to the more political: a break-up song about Brexit, a young mother working in a sweatshop and Trump’s election to the White House.  

 “I think of my songs as little sketches of a scene”, he says “and in those two or three minutes I am trying to paint a picture for the listener.”

 “When I look back on the album I have a lot of memories of things that inspired the songs and the places where I wrote or recorded them.”

A multi-instrumentalist who plays all the instruments on the album (bar two guest musicians on one of the track), Gray cites J.J. Cale, Richard Thompson and Chet Atkins as key influences

With an easy-going vocal delivery, some rather lovely guitar flourishes and consistently thought-provoking lyrics, Gray turns out some quality songs which make for a highly listenable album.

Released: January 2021

https://www.robertgraymusic.com/

Singer-songwriter: album review – Michael McGovern ‘Highfield Suite’

Highfield Suite is the debut album from Glasgow singer-songwriter Michael McGovern. At 25 he’s been writing songs since he was a teenager, Highfield Suite being the culmination of his work to date. He says the songs on the album very much reflect this period of his life, focusing on themes such as friendship, love, regret and reconciling with one’s own mistakes.  Citing the likes of Leonard Cohen, to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Springsteen and Fleet Foxes as key inspirations McGovern traverses that folky, acoustic, Americana-flavoured vibe with confidence and there’s a real maturity to his song-writing, too.

McGovern had begun building a name for himself on the festival circuit but, like many musicians, once the pandemic struck and brought an end to life performances his focus turned to writing and recording. Taking the self-isolation route to its creative limits, McGovern ended up recording much of the album alone in a small wooden cabin in Galway, Ireland with a single microphone.

If that suggests a stark, minimalist feel to the album, then it’s a wrong impression. Dublin-based producer, Bill Shanley, worked alongside McGovern to flesh out the album and a range of additional musicians and backing vocalists were brought in on various tracks to add extra depth and texture. McGovern himself plays guitar, bass, piano and keyboards on the album with co-producer, Shanley, providing additional guitars, bass and vocals alongside assorted guests, including some wonderfully evocative pedal steel guitar from Connor Smith.

The result is a beautifully timeless album with heartfelt lyrics, lush gospel-tinged harmony vocals complementing McGovern’s own emotive voice and some gorgeous guitar. An impressive debut.

Released: June 2021

https://www.michaelmcgovern.co.uk/

Singer-songwriter: album review – Carbonhobo ‘Memoirs From The Crooked Road’

Carbonhobo is the alias for Neil McCartney’s latest solo venture. McCartney (who confirms in the accompanying press release he is actually related to his far more famous name-sake – but only distantly so) will be known to many folk-rock fans as the fiddle player with Merry Hell. Just as we witnessed with the solo album from Merry Hell’s Virginia Kettle last summer, the album is something of a departure from the parent group’s signature sound. In place of amped-up, rousing folk rock anthems we go down a far mellower singer-songwriter road with Carbonhobo.

What is fascinating about the songs on this album is that unlike many musicians who used the enforced down-time during lockdown to put pen to paper and create a whole load of brand-new material, many of the songs on this album go back decades – or at least were started back then.

Described as a “twelve-track wander through over thirty years of songs, written and lived around the world” Memoirs From The Crooked Road include the wistful ‘Seagull’, based on a tune McCartney wrote in his teens in Wigan back in the 1980s, to the infectious ‘Fifteen Miles To Buy Tobacco’ written in a cottage in County Mayo in the early 90s and completed in present day Wigan.

Between his teen years in Wigan and settling down there again later on, McCartney has enjoyed an adventurous life with stints in London, Ireland, the US and Thailand, all of which leave their mark on this album and the songs therein.

McCartney is effortlessly comfortable with the material, has an expressive, emotive voice, is a great storyteller, a fine musician and has an ear for a catchy melody. He takes us on quite a journey with Memoirs From The Crooked Road but it’s well worth joining him.

Released: 2nd August 2021

https://www.facebook.com/carbonhobo/

Related posts:

Album review – Merry Hell ‘Emergency Lullabies’

Album review – Virginia Kettle ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’

DVD review: Merry Hell ‘A Year In The Life’

Album review: Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’

EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’

Folk: album review – Joe Danks ‘Seaspeak’

Having previously lived in south-east London for nearly twenty years I was pretty familiar with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and delighted to learn that Joe Danks’ album Seaspeak came about as a result of a collaboration between the museum and the English Folk Dance & Song Society.

Hailing from Nottingham and now residing in Derbyshire, what Danks lacks in terms of bonafide seafaring credentials he certainly makes up for in musicianship, songwriting and ability to source and reinterpret traditional material. Listeners may already be familiar with Danks through his work as part of Anglo-Irish folk outfit Ranagri.

Although shanties suddenly became the height of cool during lockdown, Danks avoided the most obvious musical direction for his material and looks elsewhere for inspiration. Recorded at the Queen’s House in Greenwich close to the Maritime Museum, he’s gone for a mixture of traditional material with some kind of maritime theme – either directly or indirectly, several brand-new compositions and a couple of poems set to music. The album concludes with a new interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’.

“I was thrilled to be selected for the residency,” says Danks. “It was a great pleasure and privilege sourcing, writing, and arranging the material. The collection at the museum and its Caird Library is the richest stimulus imaginable for a songwriter and arranger and I was lucky to be supported by some very fine musicians on the project.”

Joining Danks, who plays guitar, bodhran and melodeon as well as singing, are Danny Peddler (accordion/hurdy gurdy), Sarah Matthews (fiddle/viola/vocals) and Jean Kelly (harp). Traditional dancer, Simon Harmer, also contributes his distinctive step dancing on two numbers.

Fresh-sounding, inventive yet steeped in tradition and tapping into a rich vein of history, from the sad tale of Jumbo the Elephant to the battle of Jutland in the First World War to Shackleton’s expedition to name but three, Seaspeak is a very impressive solo debut arising out of a fascinating project.

Released: 9th July 2021

https://www.joedanks.co.uk/

Rock: album review – Don Powell’s Occasional Flames ‘Just My Cup of Tea’

After decades of touring the circuit blasting out the old hits with erstwhile colleague, Dave Hill, in his reconstituted version of Slade, the last few years have been something of a creative renaissance for drummer, Don Powell. There was the enormously well-received album with Suzie Quatro and Sweet’s Andy Scott, there’s been work with his new Don Powell Band and he is also about to release his second album as part of Don Powell’s Occasional Flames. Just My Cup Of Tea sees him, once again, with guitarist/vocalist, Les Glover, and lyricist/poet and ukulele supremo and Slade superfan, Paul Cookson.

Paul Cookson is a brilliantly witty lyricist and poet, indeed publishing an anthology of Slade related poetry ‘Touched By The Band Of Nod’ back in 2007. I have a signed copy! Of course, there are numerous nods to Slade on the album and ‘Coz We Luv You’ is an affectionate tribute to our four heroes from Wolverhampton with a trademark Slade stomp.

The cultural references across the album’s fourteen songs go far beyond Slade and 70s glam, however. ‘I Won’t Be Playing Wonderwall’ is a witty Oasis pastiche, for example, but much of the album gives off something of an early 80s post-punk vibe – choppy, slightly aggressive yet highly tuneful playing, teamed up with sharp, observational semi- spoken-word lyrics. Not the album lacks more sensitive moments, too, like the poignant ‘We Are The Hearts’ or the affectionate ‘Bernie and Elton’ tribute to the bespectacled pianist and his long-time lyricist.

There quality of the musicianship on the album is great, too, both from the trio themselves and their musical guests. Cellist, Liz Hanks, who has played with the likes of Liam Gallagher, Richard Hawley, Paul Heaton and Thea Gilmore is one of the album’s guests for, example, while the group’s own guitarist, Les Glover, has a very impressive musical CV, running from Elvis sideman, James Burton to 10cc’s Graham Gouldman.

Glorious words, great playing and Don Powell out of Slade, too – what’s not to love about the Occasional Flames!

Just My Cup of Tea is released on 1st August 2021

http://www.occasional-flames.co.uk/

Related posts:

Interview with Don Powell

Veteran drummer Don Powell out of Slade

Slade legend Jim Lea releases video footage in bid to locate recently stolen guitar

EP review – Jim Lea ‘Lost In Space’

Interview with former Slade legend Jim Lea

Jim Lea at the Robin 2, Bilston 2017

Before glam: the debut 60s singles of Bowie, Bolan, Slade, Mud and Sweet

Slade, strikes and the three-day week: the story of the greatest Christmas record ever made

Slade at Donnington 1981

Slade at White Rock Theatre, Hastings 2015

Giants of Rock, Minehead 26-29 January 2018

Slade at Brighton 2019

Americana: album review – Beki Hemingway ‘Earth & Asphalt’

“We are two Americans living in Ireland doing original Americana which is folky and rocky at times.”

So stated the charming hand-written note that accompanied the CD and press release announcing Beki Hemingway’s latest album. Folky and rocky Americana does indeed sound just the sort of thing that Darren’s Music Blog should be investigating so I decided to find out more.

Working with her husband and musical partner, Randy Kerkman, since the mid-90s Hemingway has already released half a dozen albums, the last being Whins and Weather which came out in 2017. It was around that time, however, that the pair made some major changes to their lives. Leaving behind Denver, Colorado they emigrated to Ireland in late 2016, settling in Dundalk on Ireland’s east coast.

Channelling the spirit of the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp and Hank Williams Earth & Asphalt serves up eleven tracks of gorgeous, sun-kissed, heart-felt Americana. And there is, indeed, some rocky bits. Kerkman is a greatly talented guitarist, whether turning in some achingly poignant guitar licks on the slower tracks like ‘Shape of My Face’ and ‘Hurricane’ or some Stonesy-type riffing on songs like ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’, not to mention bags of gorgeous-sounding, upbeat Americana on the rest.

Expressive and emotive as a singer and a great story-telling lyricist and melodious song-writer, Hemingway’s vocals are the perfect fit for her husband’s playing. Bass, drums and keyboards from a succession of supporting players round out the sound nicely and it’s extremely well-produced with some rich-sounding harmony vocals.

What you won’t really find is much in the way of Celtic influences, however much they are soaking up the scenery and culture of their new lifestyle.

“It turns out that being here has only made us sound more American,” says Hemingway. I can’t disagree with that! Simply gorgeous.

Released this year Earth & Asphalt is available from: http://blog.bekihemingway.com/

Folk: album review – Màiri MacMillan ‘Gu Deas’

On her long-awaited debut album entitled Gu Deas (meaning south or southern), Màiri MacMillan presents us with interpretations of eleven traditional Gaelic songs. For MacMillan, Gaelic folksong and the Gaelic language is not merely some recent exploration of Scotland’s rich musical heritage. She lives and breathes it and is very much the genuine article.

From Milton in South Uist, MacMillan was brought up surrounded by Gaelic language, culture, music and song and began singing at an early age. Gaelic is her first language and Gaelic songs, and traditions run deep in her family.

“The songs on this album have been learned from recordings of women, mostly from South Uist, who passed on songs for future generations,” she writes in the sleeve-notes.

MacMillan is blessed with one of these beautiful, clear, pure voices that is just so perfect for this material and her familiarity with and deep love for the songs shines through.

The songs have been given fresh-sounding but sympathetic contemporary arrangements by the musician Mhairi Hall, who arranged and produced the album, learning from past recordings of South Uist tradition bearers. Alongside Hall (harmonium, piano, flute, and whistle), the album features Megan Henderson (fiddle and voice), Ali Hutton (bodhrán, guitar, whistle, great highland bagpipes) and Rachel Newton (clàrsach, electric harp and voice).

The extensive sleeve-notes, in both Gaelic and English, provide full lyrics and additional background information for each of the songs. The themes range from mythical creatures to long lost love to banishment to battle laments. An especially poignant moment is at the end of the first song ‘Wily Margaret’ where a few verses from an original field recording of the song, now in the custody of National Trust for Scotland, are spliced into MacMillan’s own version.

A beautifully-made album that will find a suitable home with anyone who has a love for Gaelic songs and traditions.

https://mairimacmillan.com/

Folk/Americana: album review – Sons of the Never Wrong ‘Undertaker’s Songbook’

Formed in Chicago almost thirty years ago Sons of the Never Wrong are an alt-folk trio with a signature sound of soaring harmonies and lush acoustic arrangements built around  of thoughtful, witty song-writing.

Their ninth studio album, Undertaker’s Songbook is something of a celebratory release as  the band approach their 30th anniversary.

Founder members Bruce Roper (vocals, guitar) and Sue Demel (vocals, guitar, djembe, dulcimer) along with long-time member Deborah Lader (vocals, banjo, guitar, mandolin) who joined the trio in 1998, replacing original member Nancy Walker, are joined by a range of musical guests and spoken word collaborators for this special release. Guests include Marc Kelly Smith, Karen Savoca, Anne Harris and Pete Heitzman helping bring colourful texture to Sons of The Never Wrong’s trademark blend of folk, jazz, pop and rock influences.

Opening track, the gorgeous gospel-tinged, soul-flavoured ‘Muddy, Muddy River’ with guest, Bob Long, on organ and piano is clearly destined to be a centre-piece of future live performances and is a modern-day classic in the making – absolutely gorgeous.

Elsewhere on the album, the melancholic, ecologically-themed piano and vocals number ‘Shorebird’ is another stand-out track, along with the Indie-ish anthem ‘Om Not This Time’. Tracks like ‘Everyone’s In The House’, meanwhile, take us into more classic folk singer-songwriter territory, evoking the genre’s golden age.

Beautifully presented with hand-painted cover art from Lader, Undertaker’s Songbook is a fine album to mark the trio’s thirtieth anniversary.

Released: 1st June 2021

https://sonsoftheneverwrong.com/