Bonfire Radicals describe themselves as Birmingham’s (un)traditional folk band. An interesting claim and their second album, The Space Between, supplies plenty of evidence to back it up. They draw musical inspiration from various traditions, then blend them with modern rock and jazz styles. Sometimes riotous, sometimes more gentle, often playful and experimental, this album isn’t lacking in variety, originality or ambition.
Bonfire Radicals are a six-piece band consisting of Katie Stevens (clarinet, backing vocals), Michelle Holloway (recorders, lead vocals), Sarah Farmer (violin, viola) Emma Reading (guitar), Illias Lintoz (drums) and Pete Churchill (bass, accordion, organ, backing vocals). The eight instrumental tracks and one song included on The Space Between, combine their own compositions with tunes composed by others and traditional material.
The album gets off to a fiery start with a rousing folk rock version of ‘Brenda Stubbert’s Reel’, composed by Cape Breton fiddler Jerry Holland. The fiddle leads off, with guitar, bass and drums supplying a hard edge. Those three instruments also provide jazz riffs that nicely compliment the main tune. Without a pause, we move into the second track, ‘Bonfire’, another reel, this time composed by Matt Harry. Impressive recorder playing gets this started and the other wind instrument, the clarinet also has a significant role. Another fast and furious tune.
A Latin jazz sequence heralds a change of tempo at the start of ‘Café de Flore’, a set of traditional French dance tunes. Recorder and clarinet play a big part, while guitar, bass and drums continue to slip in jazzy riffs.
‘Satsuma Moon’ is appropriately quirky and experimental for a tune that poses the question, is the Moon is a giant satsuma? It’s a playful, chaotic and discordant tune, with repetitive sequences, which reminded me of a vinyl record getting stuck. A difficult track to classify.
‘Mary Ashford’, a nineteenth century murder ballad, is the only vocal track. The mostly traditional words are sung by Michelle, to a melody composed by Brummie folk legend Jon Wilkes. They tell the story of the murder of a young woman at Erdington in 1817, a fairly typical murder ballad, but with a disturbing twist.
I said that it tells of the 1817 murder, but some additional lyrics at the end talk of the story being repeated. Mary died in Pype Hayes Park, Erdington, on Whit Monday, at the age of twenty. In 1974 another twenty-year-old woman was found murdered in the same park, on Whit Monday. In both cases a man stood trial but was acquitted. Both men were called Thornton. This emotional track sensitively handles a disturbing, but still tragically relevant, subject. Michelle’s vocals have an emotional power, and I’d have liked to hear more of them.
‘The Man From Suburbia’ takes us to the Balkans, via Southwest London. The tune is dedicated to Surbiton, where Pete was raised, and is described on the sleeve as “Queen of the Suburbs”. Now I don’t want to start an argument, but I grew up in Ealing, and was always told that it was the Queen of the Suburbs. A dual monarchy perhaps. The tune has an unmistakably Balkan feel, with accordion, clarinet and recorder prominent. As the tempo picks up, guitar and bass introduce a rockier sound.
Two Klezmer pieces follow to which the clarinet gives authenticity. ‘Sha Di Shviger Kumt’ (‘Shh the Mother-in-Law is Coming’) is a steady dance tune. ‘Freilacher Nashele’ is a quicker tune, in which the electric guitar is heard.
Which brings us to the final track, the Bulgarian inspired ‘Coffee Countdown’. This was a favourite track from the previous album, reworked here to play on a pipe organ. It is a good tune, and the pipe organ works well, giving it a dreamy feel.
You don’t hear Bulgarian music played on a pipe organ every day, but Bonfire Radicals are anything but conventional. Their music is fresh, eclectic and with an experimental edge. Experimentation has its risks, and I found The Space Between a bit uneven, with some tracks working better than others. That said, at their best Bonfire radicals make a great sound. The musicianship is high quality and the arrangements work well. I’ll be following their progress with interest.
Artist website: www.bonfireradicals.com
‘Freilacher Nashele’ – official video: