Steeleye Span: WintersmithA FolkCast review by morris dancer and musician Sophie Watson, aided and abetted by CarysFirst things first: you do not need to be a Terry Pratchett fan to enjoy this album! I had never read any of Pratchett's comic fantasy books - I could never get on with his style of writing - so I approached the album with slight trepidation. I needn't have worried; I was hooked from the first few notes.
The Overture starts off slow and mysterious, drawing you in and reminding you that you are in Discworld; segueing into a pipe and fiddle tune accompanied by what sounds suspiciously like morris sticks. The next two songs introduce the character of the Wintersmith and his world, warning us of the dangers of morris dancing, and particularly the mysterious 'Dark Morris' of the former's title; an upbeat but dark song full of menace, sung to perfection by Maddy Prior.
This is followed by 'Wintersmith', featuring the voice and oft-underrated songwriting talents of bassist Rick Kemp. Imaginative chord changes underpin 'The Legend of the Cold Entity' while we hear more about the land of the Wintersmith. A complete change of mood comes with the next track, 'You', a declaration of the Wintersmith's love for the young witch Tiffany. Kathryn Tickell's Northumbrian pipes are a perfect accompaniment to this slightly creepy love song from Julian Littman. This is followed by 'The Good Witch', arguably the most moving moment of the album, featuring not just Maddy's unmistakeable vocals and Peter's fiddle but the voice of Terry Pratchett himself reading from one of his books. Band of Teachers, while perhaps one of the weaker tracks on the album musically, is stompingly upbeat, telling of the nomadic bands of teachers who wander throughout Discworld, teachers who 'sold what everyone needed, but often didn't want'! 'Wee Free Men', by ex-Steeleye member Bob Johnson, tells of the Nac Mac Feegle, fairy folk who like to drink, steal and fight. A rousing song with a degree of defiance in the lyrics, this could almost be a call to arms. 'Hiver', sung by Maddy, is a beautiful ballad written from the viewpoint of immortals, musing on the human ability to close one's mind to what is really happening in the world. Though ostensibly about Discworld, it could be equally applicable to our 21st century world. The next track, 'Fire and Ice', seems to begin in a similar vein with Maddy's ethereal vocal as the summer lady over a quasi-prog rock base, then Rick counters as the Wintersmith before launching into a rousing chorus. This is a joyous track celebrating the ever-changing seasons and Rick's own pagan beliefs.
'The Making of a Man' is a sweet and simple chant in which Tiffany explains to the Wintersmith, who is trying to become mortal to win her heart, that it takes more than physical things to make a man. The final line 'you don't have...love enough to break my heart' suggests that Tiffany isn't entirely immune to his charms at this stage, which leads on to the magnificent 'Crown of Ice'. Featuring the thunderous bass and voice of Rick Kemp, this song puts the rock back into folk-rock. With deliciously unpredictable chord changes and thumping rhythms, the Wintersmith offers Tiffany immortality in his icy realm in a song that makes you want to get up and dance...or even headband!
Another ballad follows, 'First Dance', telling of how the romance began, before a reprise of 'The Dark Morris Tune' featuring the same instrumentation as earlier, but this time without the vocals. The tune is slow but with a very strong beat (I think this is definitely Border and not Cotswold morris); and we then reach the climax of the tale: the arrival of The Summer Lady and the vanquishing of the Wintersmith. 'The Summer Lady' is a joyful, summery song, written and sung by Julian...but still with hints of darkness, for in order for the cycle of life to continue 'at the end of the summer, the Lady must die'. 'Ancient Eyes' brings back echoes of the Overture in a slow, solemn and yet incredibly beautiful song telling of the eternal journey undertaken by the turtle who carries the weight of the Discworld upon his back. The song is underpinned by a subtle sound that makes me wonder how Steeleye will manage without Peter Knight's magical fiddle playing now that he has left the band for pastures new. And finally to the jewel of the album, the heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting 'We Shall Wear Midnight', in which Peter Knight imagines how young Tiffany Aching might ask Terry Pratchett for a life beyond the stories. Peter's vocals and fiddle are backed up by piano, played by Julian Littman, and interspersed with a perfectly balanced sax accompaniment played by Steeleye's newcomer Pete Zorn. This was my song of the year, and is a fitting swansong for Peter after his time in a magnificent folk-rock band who have proved that you can continue to move from strength to strength even after 40 years in the business. Whatever direction the band takes now that Peter Knight has moved on, though, 'Wintersmith' is an album that will be remembered as one of Steeleye Span's best. (PS. I have now read the book.)
|The novelist and the singer: Sir Terry Pratchett and Maddy Prior|