ODDFELLOW’S CASINO – Oh, Sealand (At The Helm/Microcultures)

SealandTaking their name from Ambrose Oddfellow, a Victorian freakshow host whose moustache frontman David Bramwell apparently inherited from a great-aunt, the Brighton outfit have released seven albums over their 15-year career. The latest emerges from John Higgs’ commissioning Bramwell, himself an author of various books and presenter of assorted Radio 3 and 4 documentaries about the country’s eccentrics and oddities (indeed, ‘Danu’ is a spoken word track set to an electronic drone about the River Don written for one such programme), to write a song to accompany Watling Street, his book about the history of the famous Roman road.

That duly appears here as ‘The Ghosts Of Watling Street’, sounding curiously like Pet Shop Boys filtered folk and featuring a vocally treated spoken passage by Alan Moore, its line about how “We have wandered too far from some ancient totem – something central to us, that we must find our way back to” recalling Joni’s message in Woodstock about getting back to the garden.

Progressive psych-folk is probably the best tag if you want to label this, Bramwell exploring contemporary Britain on numbers such as the bass pulsing, cobwebby ‘Land of the Cuckoo’ about how public institutions have been infiltrated by profit-seeking organisations as he sings “there’s a fox in the schoolyard, they’re in the hospitals now.”

‘Sealand’ itself relates the true story of the creation of the independent principality of Sealand, founded by the 1967 seizure of the abandoned world war two Maunsell Sea Fort six miles off the Suffolk coast, serving as a parallel comment on its neighbouring nation. Paying tribute to Alan Clarke’s 1974 BBC film, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is another questioning of identity, drawing on 70s prog folk as, compounded by squalling guitar, it tells the story of the protagonist’s visions of angels and devils and his rejection of Middle England conservatism in the wake of his emerging homosexuality.

Repressed sexuality is also explored through images of drowned villages and people sleeping underwater in the seven minute ‘Down In The Water’ with its mix of Floydian atmospherics, surging bass pulsing rhythms and Rachel James’s pop shaded chorus echoingly distant vocals.

Elsewhere, ‘Sons And Daughters Of A Quiet Land’ offers a delicate moodily pastoral troubadour flavour with strings, synths and rumbling drums, its psychedelic shades seeping over into the watery ambience of ‘Swallow The Day’. ‘Mustard Fields’ provides another incursion into echoey psych-folk that suggests occasional Pentangle shapes via touches of Comus and ISB, whereas ‘Children Of The Rocks’ is swirl of fuzzed bass and airy floating vocals that sits next to the sparse piano backed and woodwind simplicity of romantic ballad ‘Josephine’ and its rural landscape imagery

The determined fuzz bass of ‘Children Of The Rocks’ contrasts with the unadorned piano and plaintive vocals of ‘Josephine’, a simple love song that uses imagery of the English landscape to convey its emotional message.

It ends with ‘Blood Moon’, another minimal piano arrangement with background electronic effects wheezing synths and bells, and a measured semi-spoken lyric about being guided home through the darkness by the moon and the sirens of the night in search of the lost old world as it gradually swells to a tumultuous close. Unsettling, spooked and beguiling in equal measure, this is quintessential 70s English progressive pastoral folk that invites you to share its time capsule and explore its love of and frustration with this sceptred isle.

Mike Davies

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‘We Will Be Here’ – single version, official video: