Evolving out of an ad-hoc reunion of 90s folk-punk band, the Tansads, Wigan-based folk rockers, Merry Hell, have been making a decisive impact on the UK’s folk and festival scene over the past nine years. With several albums under their belt they now come at us with a DVD. Titled ‘A Year In The Life of Merry Hell’ it’s a documentary that follows the band between February 2018 and February 2019 – and when we say documentary it is very much a carefully-crafted film worthy of the name rather than a video of concert footage with a few dressing room interviews tacked on to the end.
Made by the band themselves and produced, directed, filmed and edited by Merry Hell fiddle player, Neil McCartney, it’s a fascinating insight into this tightly-knit band of close family members and long-term friends.
We see the band on the road – at festivals and backstage at various venues – but we also see individual members at home, in pubs or visiting some of their favourite places. We get to hear about musical influences (punk, Susan Vega, Nick Drake and hymn melodies…) but we also get to hear about literary influences, too. Orwell looms large, and not just for Wigan Pier, either.
Engaging, funny, moving, and highly personal, as band documentaries go ‘A Year In The Life of Merry Hell’ stands head and shoulders above many films about far, far more famous musicians. In fact, I’d go so far as saying that even if you’d never heard of Merry Hell and you had zero interest in folk rock, this documentary would still be compulsive viewing for the warm and very human portrayal of its subject matter.
Released: September 2019
Album review: Merry Hell ‘Anthems To The Wind’
EP review: Merry Hell ‘Bury Me Naked’
EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’
Merry Hell and their rousing brand of folk rock have been around since 2010 now, rising from the ashes of 90s folk punk band The Tansads. Rather than another album of electrified folk the Wigan-based band take a more pastoral approach this time, with the all-acoustic Anthems To The Wind offering reworkings of established favourites alongside some newer songs.
“… although the band has grown in many ways, we have wanted to continue performing in the more intimate venues where the full electric 8-piece would neither fit nor be suitable. The atmospheric hush of the folk clubs inspired a stripping back of many of our arrangements to get to the very heart of our music’s message,” the sleeve-notes tell us.
Much of the album is recorded live: at Bunbury Village Hall in Cheshire and the Lion Salt Works in Northwich, alongside the Music Projects in Wigan.
It opens with a reworking of Drunken Serenade from the band’s first album. Indeed, a memorable line from these lyrics gives this new album its title. It’s clear that songs like this and The War Between Ourselves lose none of their power through the acoustic treatment and, if anything, become yet more anthemic.
The album also proves an excellent showcase for some of the more poignantly reflective songwriting of the band’s Virginia Kettle, and her lovely vocals, on tracks like No Place Like Tomorrow.
Anthems To The Wind shows Merry Hell continuing to innovate and inspire. A fine album that lives up to its name.
Released: 26th November 2018
Merry Hell – Bury Me Naked EP
Merry Hell – Come On England EP
If I was to try and sum up the band Merry Hell I’d ask people to imagine if Fairport Convention had come from Wigan. That is not in any way intended as an insult. Being from Lancashire and being a long-time fan of Fairport Convention it is definitely 100% meant as a compliment.
Merry Hell’s lyrical themes tend to be somewhat edgier, politically, compared to Fairport but not in an over-earnest ranty way. Bitter-sweet reflectiveness and wry good humour tend to be the band’s hallmarks. And so it is with ‘Bury Me Naked’ – the band’s new single. Written and sung by the band’s female lead, Virginia Kettle, it’s a great mid-tempo sing-along with an ecological theme and a friendly rebuke about filling our lives with too much junk and clutter. Originally appearing on the band’s second album this track is a re-recording featuring some fiddle wizardry from incoming band member, Neil McCartney.
The second track ‘Sailing Too Close To The Wind’ is a slower-paced ballad that’s lifted from Merry Hell’s most recent album Bloodlines. Going back to my initial analogy, this track would not have been at all out of place alongside some of the memorable songs that the likes of Ralph McTell gifted to Fairport Convention after they got back in business as a touring and recording unit. Two additional songs ‘Drunken Serenade feat. The Banshee Reel’ and ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’ also showcase the band’s song-writing and musical abilities.
Musically, lyrically and, indeed, politically there is a much-needed place for a band Merry Hell in today’s Britain and it’s good to see them going from strength to strength.
Released: February 26th 2018
Merry Hell ‘Come On England’
This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here
“An alternative national anthem” is what Wigan-based folk-rockers, Merry Hell, bill the title track of their new EP, Come On England! It is not difficult to see where they are coming from: in a country that’s been riven by inequality and division, they aim to present a hopeful vision for the future.
There is passion, defiance, warmth and optimism in the lyrics: “On the streets I have seen those with greed and hate in their eyes; and those with their hearts and their hands open wide.”
The socio-political theme continues in We Need Each Other Now which, like the title track, also appears on the band’s current Bloodlines album. Again, this is an anthemic sing-along with heartfelt lyrics that one can imagine resonating really well with audiences on the live folk scene.
Lean On Me, Love is more personal and more reflective, a gentle acoustic track, yet with Andrew Kettle’s powerful, distinctive vocals still delivered with that same air of sincerity and determination.
The final track is a live version of The War Between Ourselves, a bouncy Levellers-esque slice of indie-folk that has been a mainstay of the band’s live performances since Merry Hell first formed in 2010.
An alternative national anthem? That might be a tad ambitious but this EP certainly contains some rousing anthems for troubled times and it is highly likely that Come On England! will be a firm live favourite in the band’s set list for years to come.
Released: August 2017