Words by Julian May
Bellowhead are a heavy metal outfit, Reich-like minimalists, vocal harmony virtuosi, a brass-blasting jazz combo, a shanty crew and squeezebox-driven folkies. And that’s all just in ‘Byker Hill’, the song that opens their glorious fourth album, Broadside. It’s a perfect album title: broadsides were hastily printed ballads, hawked in the streets, taverns and at events such as public executions. These are a rich source for Bellowhead, who relish the theatrical and the Gothic. At least two songs here, the comically revolting ‘Black Beetle Pies’ and the seriously scary ghost story, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, first came to wide public notice as broadsides. A broadside is also, of course, the deafening explosive fusillade from a fighting ship firing all its cannons at once – which also encapsulates perfectly what these 11 players are capable of.
While there is a relentlessness to this album, the arrangements (by singer Jon Boden and drummer Pete Flood) exploit the myriad textures available admirably. The ensemble singing is uplifting, and Jon Boden ends ‘Old Dun Cow’ as if it is the big number in a West End musical.
Several of these stories are familiar: ‘10,000 Miles Away’ a transportation to Australia song; ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’ one of the more interesting sea-shanties; ‘Betsy Baker’ a sad tale of unrequited love, beautifully done. They take a fresh look, too, at ‘What’s the Life of a Man’ which, declaring we shouldn’t grieve over our transitory lives, makes us do just that. There’s even an eccentric, vigorous version of ‘Lillibulero’, a tune that’ll be familiar to listeners of the BBC World Service, as it provides the station’s theme.
Track to try: Byker Hill