PROVINCIALS -The Dark Ages (Itchen)

The Dark AgesA Hampshire duo comprising guitarist and author Seb Hunter and singer Polly Perry, formerly of Polly & the Billet Doux, here accompanied by Dan Parkinson on piano and drums, as the title suggests the music and the lyrical content on The Dark Ages, their second album, is steeped in shadowy, sombre tones.

It opens quietly with the sound of the waves and a circling acoustic guitar riff before the arrival of Perry, a spoken reading of Victorian poet John Davidson’s In Romney Marsh, punctuated by a siren-sung original chorus referencing his suicide by drowning. They take a geographical shift for ‘Skara Brae’, a doomed love song titled for the stone-built Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of ‘Mainland’, the largest of the Orkney islands, acoustic guitar again weaving a minimal slightly jazzy backdrop to the vocals as Perry sings “Everything is changing now/There’s curse upon the brow/But all is love not loss…in water we’ll swim side by side”.

The Dark Ages takes on a fuller sound with the electric guitar flurries and the more strident vocals of ‘Cat’s Cradle’ as “tempers divide” and “tired, bewildered, worn out”, a relationship threatens to unravel. Hunter marks his first lead vocal with the whisperingly hushed, nervy jazzy-blues fingerpicked ‘I Can’t Sleep’, Perry returning for the Spanish guitar flamenco-tinged sounds of ‘The Empire Line’, a revenge ballad of love’s transient and often combative nature (“have I caused my soul to go astray sold for love in pursuit of pleasure… sharpen tools and begin the battle, I shall not concede”).

The bluesy alt-rock (a touch of Pixies perhaps) and jazz influences combine on the grumbling drums and staccato rhythm and shifting time signatures of the five-minute ‘Inkerman’, the vitriolic lyrics again infused with tension and confrontation, returning to calmer waters on the broodingly waltzing ‘We Lost Our Minds’ sung in the voice of shell-shocked WWII survivors (“Death takes her toll of worn and best and wave upon wave she shall receive the rest”).

After all this emotional dissonance, ‘Lay On Me’, with its stately piano backing, adopts a softer, caressingly sung approach of peace and togetherness (“in your arms, cradle me so, my love/haven held/dovetail enjoined”), though that’s soon dispelled with the spare, hauntingly sung folk blues ‘The Western Shore’ with its images of a divided nation (“we are servile/broke beehive”) where “wealth belongs to percentile clique”.

They end though on a duetted note of optimism even if the face of separation with ‘The Same Sigh’ where, spare accompaniment rising to a fuller sonic finale, while “the water comes in washes you away/drags you away from me” Hunter declares “Over the water, somehow I’ll be with you” and “assuming tomorrow will ever come/if it forgets too/I won’t forget you”.

Experimental, poetic, at times stark and uncomfortable, they’re challenging but ultimately rewarding listening.

Mike Davies

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Artists’ website: www.provincials.bandcamp.com/

‘Skara Brae’ – official video: