Responding to the pandemic and taking inspiration from Richard Jefferies, the Victorian author of the dystopian After London, Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe and poems about the impact of the Lancashire cotton famine of the 1860s, the Brighton-based experimental-folk-noir quartet (multi-instrumentalists Tom Pryor and Adam Ronchetti, flautist Laura Ward whose crystal clear vocals counterpoint the gravelly, nasal Ben Webb) offer up After The City, a concept album of a post-apocalyptic world with nature reasserting itself.
‘Tragic Hearts Of Towns’ kicks it off in strident acoustic guitar and fiddle folk-rock mode, adopting medieval-style melody and the image of a lively bustling urban city, nature relegated to flowers on window sills, prior to disaster striking, the lyrics adapted from ‘Glasgow’, a 19th century poem by Alexander Smith. Such giddiness is swiftly dispelled over the course of the next four songs with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse crashing the party, first to arrive is Plague on the White Horse, for the sparse, fingerpicked guitar and soaring violin of ‘Litany’, adapted from Summer’s Last Will and Testament, a 1660 play by Thomas Nashe about an outbreak of bubonic plague, the two vocals overlapping as they sing “I am sick and I must die”. Then, seated on the Red Horse, War strikes the land in the broadside ballad ‘Jemmy Is Slain’, the counterpointed echoey stark twin vocals opening unaccompanied and subsequently set to a minimal instrumentation backdrop that builds to a percussive soundscape with flute driving the final notes. The arrival of the Black Horse and Famine is signalled by the hollow, hypnotic percussive sound of ‘Famine, Fever, Frost’ with Ward on vocals and Pryor’s banjo gurgling, the anonymous lyrics taken from Famine Poetry Archive at Exeter University documenting the Lancashire Cotton Famine which resulted in riots and mass emigration. Finally, heralded by flute, comes Death on the darkly forlorn pastoral ‘Pale Horse’ with Webb taking the first vocal before Ward joins on harmonies, a percussive hoof-beat rhythm building as e-bow and bodhran add to the tension.
Devastation having done its worst, the stark a capella ‘Smokeless Chimneys’ offers a vision of the landscape, the song again an anonymously written poem taken from the Cotton Famine Archive, the passer-by’s comment that the country is now such more attractive without the clouds of a smoke ironically underpinning the depression rendered by the textile industry collapse.
The climactic catastrophe that delivers the final blow is left unexplained, rendered only by Pryor’s deceptively pretty instrumental interlude ‘Landmark’, the lyrics for the final three tracks all adapted from Jeffries’ book, the first being ‘After London’ itself, which, with its soothing, rippling melody describes the decay, “the empty towns/Concealed in the mud” and the unharvested crops ravaged by mice, which are eaten by the mice who, in turn, are killed by the feral dogs, the uneaten corpses strewn in the streets. But it ends upbeat with the start of the rewilding as the green returns to cover the land, proceeding into ‘Lay Low Lay’, Ward on traditional-flavoured lead with lively fingerpicked guitar and an initial thumping drum beat in a celebration of nature’s triumph as “all the decay of the last 1000 years rots below the water with a million human beings”. It ends on a soaring note of positivity and hope with the circling guitar patterns, percussion, violin and lively flute of ‘The Ships’, the two singers interweaving the vocals as they describe “a beautiful sea she is today/Clear enough to drink/Abounds with fish of every kind “as ancient cities and lost towns” lie concealed beneath the now unpolluted waters.
Whether read as a cautionary warning of climate change, a commentary on a corrupt political system or a pandemic-driven vision, the power of the musicianship, the at times otherworldy ambience and the craft with which the source material is applied, make After The City an outstanding piece of work.
Artists’ website: www.birdinthebelly.com
‘Pale Horse’ – official video: