Gigspanner- The Wife of Urban Law (released October 2017)
All of us, at one time or another, have seen a gravestone and tried to imagine the sort of life that person may have lived – but few are able to build an album on the concept. The eerie title of Gigspanner’s latest release, The Wife of Urban Law, out last October, was inspired by a gravestone from 1884 in an obscure Oxfordshire graveyard. This unorthodox concept seems to embody the consistently unique qualities this group possess – with legendary fiddler Peter Knight joined by guitarist Roger Flack and percussionist Sacha Trochet (the trio’s new addition) to explore new, innovative sounds and colours.
The venerable Peter Knight, a veteran of Steeleye Span and founder member of Gigspanner, emerges as the driving force behind this project. His soaring instrumentals reflect his status as one of the best folk fiddlers currently playing in Britain, and he is given ample room to shine here. However, the trio manage to balance out and weave amongst each other to create musical patterns that leave the listener with a haunting sensation – indeed, Flack’s haunting guitar riffs on the first track are a fitting opening for the album, whilst the group’s evocative combination of voices on songs such as Green Gravel reflect the power of three musicians very much in tune with each other.
“Often eclectic and trance-like, they conjure up a superb range of musical concepts from their relatively small collection of instruments”
Listening to the track Green Gravel (here, Fay Hield’s disquieting interpretation of the traditional tune) brings to mind the pleasing mix of traditional and original pieces this album offers. Gigspanner’s innovative arrangements ensure that the traditional melodies have new life breathed into them, sending their forms dancing to unfamiliar and strange tunes. The new tracks, written mostly by Knight, not only fit elegantly alongside the old but also show an excellent understanding of the folk tradition, with an experimental, playful edge. Take for example the track Penny the Hero, Knight’s song about the game of Shove Penny, which holds a gentle, delicate balance of voice and Trochet’s drumming and gives off a sparse, almost African feel. Knight’s skills are taken to another level on his self-written, virtuosic piece The Lament for Urban Law’s Wife, a track that feels almost monumental in its slow exploration of his echoing, wailing fiddle line. Knight, it seems, is a fine wine of the folk word – reaching the height of his powers at the ripe old age of 70.
However, the overall impression this reviewer gets from Gigspanner’s latest release is their ability to span and blend musical genres, bringing down the boundaries between traditional folk and jazz, between African and Eastern-European. There is even a nodding reference to the music of the Aborigines – surely approaching a first on the British folk scene. The rather gothic album cover, portraying an eerie veiled angel with wings outstretched, perhaps helps to keep this album rooted in the concept of the title track – forming a pleasing dichotomy, in this reviewer’s mind at least, of the English pastoral scene and experimental jazz-folk fusions. Often eclectic and trance-like, they conjure up a superb range of musical concepts from their relatively small collection of instruments. The Wife of Urban Law is indeed an album that captivates and transports the listener –, and perhaps may have even engaged the ear of a certain Urban Law, an obscure and unnoticed 19th century wheelwright from Chipping Norton.