The maturation of Galley Beggar from tentative electric trad to wigged out psych folk rock has been a joy, named after an old English entity with Puckish intention. Heathen Hymns their fourth album builds on earlier promise and delivers a gothic, atmospheric offering full of musical shape shifting and melodic ambiances. Additionally they’ve scored a direct hit by persuading original Trees vocalist Celia Drummond to sing lead on one track thereby linking them directly with one of the bands they’re often compared to. Signed to doom metal label, Rise Above they’re happily avoiding all the black, chains and skull iconography yet reaping the benefits of its technical connections.
Heathen Hymns returns them to Toe Rag studios and the sure production of Liam Watson – White Stripes overseer – where Silence & Tears began the expansion of their influences and intentions. At eight tracks only you could carp that it’s a bit short but what’s here is often longer than your average and certainly displays more layers and depth to boot. Set in brilliant packaging which matches their whole image – great job Burning Moon studio – with phases of the moon, 1920s photos of nymphs dancing in a glade and equally moody band portraits, the impression made is that this is their most complete and fully formed concept yet. The thinking and care which has been lavished is reflected in the music where the band’s writing, melody and lyric digs deep using both pagan and biblical sources, there’s much that’s natural as well, yet there is an undercurrent of the forlorn. Love is lost, broken, regret is a major emotion, water figures as a place where desire leads to half fancied passing, The Lake and Lorelei both have the suggestion at their core. Salome is equally compelling in images of out of control emotions, “ I fear her I adore her,” runs the lyric, even Four Birds has a core of bittersweet romance as each bird a passion gone awry. However do not run away with the idea that the album’s about nothing but navel gazing and sentiment, the music’s enough to return the colour to your cheeks and allow a smile to play across your face. Guitarists Mat Fowler and Dave Ellis allow each other enough elbow room so that they shimmer and improvise constantly, using sustain and intertwining, dulcimer like threads. The engine room Bill Lyn and Paul Dadswell are sprightly when called for, Dadswell uses military beats often to pick up the pace, equally they’re solid when called for as on My Return. Equally at home, several tracks are acoustically set and here delicacy and adept picking frame The Girl I Left Behind Me or The Lake. Mrs. Drummond arrives from Swiss seclusion with Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, an olde folk song – done by many but especially Pentangle – a fulsome vocal contrasts with a harsh, acid arrangement and bouncy bass line. Regular vocalist Maria O’Donnell’s non folky tones suit the arrangements and make the tracks, as fantastic as they are, more accessible as does the violin playing of Celine Marshall, thumbs up for a jigless album that doesn’t fall back on ancient tunes as a way of bolstering pepping things along.
Heathen Hymns is a thing to play again and again, it deserves acknowledgement for the sheer graft and originality behind the creation. Galley Beggar are taking to the high road.