THE English folk canon has been catapulted into the 21st century on the back of a bodacious behemoth. With a blend of bravura playing and bravado arranging, a score of different instruments and a range of styling, Bellowhead has blown away cobwebs and all vestiges of chunky sweaterdom to reawaken a slumbering giant of a genre. As such, the 11-piece is to British traditional folk what Radiohead is to prog rock. The head-to-head comparison is furthered by the fact both outfits originated in Oxfordshire and have benefited from the mentorship of John Leckie. The veteran producer put Radiohead on the road to greatness with 1995’s The Bends. Leckie’s left-field direction helped make Bellowhead’s 2010 album Hedonism the highest selling independently released folk album in Britain. The follow-up even spent time in Britain’s mainstream top 20 album chart. Broadside expands the boundaries of traditional folk with a broader canvas and palette of colour. It’s also a harder-edged album, with anarchical underpinning. Here and there, Bellowhead’s grandiosity nudges pomposity. Britpop, avantgarde classical and psychedelic rock elements mingle, and music hall and cabaret influences merge to take folk music to places where it has never been before. Roller-coaster arrangements make it a white-knuckle ride. Shedding monotone vocal tendencies for a new theatricality, frontman Jon Boden leads the band into some dark corners. In the Dickensian Black Beetle Pies, for example, the singer tells the story of an unsavoury workhouse dish served up by an unhinged governess with a sense of malice. The backdrop provided by the band channels Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill; the coda brings to mind George Martin’s production work for the Beatles. Distant echoes of Eleanor Rigby and
Penny Lane reverberate in Betsy Baker, an altogether more genteel 19th-century ballad. But later, in The Wife of Usher’s Well, Boden relates a ghost story as gruesome as anything served up by folk-rockers Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, and with a sense of invention and electric guitar distortion that Radiohead would be proud to claim. A cosy hootenanny Bellowhead’s fourth album clearly is not. Even Henry Purcell’s jaunty march
Lillibulero contains a macabre yarn concerning the devil and a farmer’s wife and a screeching string-section bridge. What’s the Life of Man? is another morbid little song, to cite the band’s own words. The closest Broadside comes to folk orthodoxy is with a brass-driven rendition of the well-known transportation ballad
10,000 Miles Away, the drinking song Thousands or More and the sea shanties Go My Way
and Roll the Woodpile Down, which are all delivered with great gusto (the last-named with retro rock feel). Folk club staples Byker Hill and The Old Dun Cow receive more radical and frenetic treatment, the former propelled by a pounding rock beat and punctuated by orchestral stabs, the latter equipped with an appropriately boozy and bluesy outro.