A post-apocalyptic planet has perhaps rarely felt less far-fetched than it does right now.
The idea of cities and people being overthrown by disaster and disease and nature returning as victor seems less the stuff of sci-fi in these surreal times. This year the ever-intriguing Brighton band Bird In The Belly met the theme full on, creating their third studio album After The City – rich with their trademark ‘folk noir’.
The journey of this mesmeric quartet began in 2018 when they trawled folk archives for little known songs and long forgotten lyrics and revitalised them in The Crowing, which was named the Sunday Express’s 5* Album of the Year.
A year later their already finely honed act gained widespread critical acclaim for their second album Neighbours & Sisters – fascinating dark songs that seemed to slide straight out of grimy Georgian and Victorian underworlds.
Bird In The Belly comprises Laura Ward and Adam Ronchetti of duo Hickory Signals together with Ben ‘Jinnwoo’ Webb and multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor who slickly produces this new release. Gravel-edged and gutteral, Webb’s uncanny vocal often floors first-time listeners. Here it fuses with the unadorned but strong, crystal clear voice of Ward – linchpins in this compelling line-up.
Ward further defines the band sound with her exquisite flute playing while Ronchetti plays acoustic guitar, bodhran, bass pedal and additional percussion and multi-instrumentalist Pryor effortlessly plays no less than six instruments – violin, guitar, organ, piano, bass pedal, synth and banjo as well as contributing backing vocals.
Recorded at Studio 95 in Brighton, After The City emerges as an uneasy, restless concept album – and one that might never have been made. On tour to showcase Neighbours & Sisters in March 2020 they were watching the ever-escalating COVID news and wondering if their upcoming Ireland tour would be able to go ahead. It swiftly became clear the answer was ‘No’.
Says Laura: “We went home to Brighton and, within weeks, a whole year’s worth of tour dates had been cancelled and the country was in lockdown.”
Known for their songs of social relevance, meticulous research and unearthing of dusty poems, texts and overlooked songs, the band alighted on an apt 19th century book – nature writer Richard Jefferies’ After London – described as ‘an early example of post-apocalyptic fiction.’ Also known as Wild England, it tells the story of the country reverting to nature following an unspecified catastrophe – and the last few surviving humans experiencing vast change in depopulated towns and cities.
Cats and dogs have turned feral and festering bodies have been left to rot under a large lake that sits where London used to be. But now the sea is so clean, it’s pure enough to drink.
By turns earthy and ethereal, strident and scaring, this is something of a futuristic musical odyssey – taking listeners from urban bustle to wholescale destruction and witnessing the healing powers of nature.
Says Ben: “Jefferies doesn’t detail what preceded the end of the fictional England so we turned our attention to cotton famine poetry, plague poetry and broadside ballads to construct a back story.”
Jefferies’ novel was an apt choice for the Brighton band. A one-time reporter for Wiltshire newspapers, Jefferies once lived in the city. His third child was born in Brighton in 1883 but died two years later from meningitis. Jefferies’ final home was at nearby Goring-by-Sea. He suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1887 aged just 38 and is buried along the coast at Worthing’s Broadwater Cemetery.
Bird in the Belly know just how to create atmosphere. Cinematic, dramatic and beautifully crafted the 10-track album intrigues, beguiles and disturbs in equal measure.
The opening song ‘Tragic Hearts Of Towns’ conjures the image of a lively, bustling metropolis, set against a merry medieval-style melody. It is adapted from Alexander Smith’s 19th century poem Glasgow – depicting an out-and-out urban scene where the only nature on show are the flowers on his window sill. You might feel Webb and Ward’s vastly differing vocals shouldn’t work but they blend tightly and seamlessly, driving the song along.
But the lightness is short-lived with the next four songs bringing the biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the party – harbingers of Plague, War, Famine and Death.
After the City will be released on February 25 on the GF*M Records label and is distributed by Cargo Music.
Artists’ website: https://www.birdinthebelly.com/
‘Pale Horse’ – official video:
26th February – ALBUM LAUNCH GIG: The Harrison, London, WC1H 8JF
14th April – The BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre) –Dyke Road, Hove
8th May – UpRoar People’s Ceilidh, Brighton Unitarian Church (Brighton Fringe)
July 29th – Sidmouth Folk Festival
1st September – Railway Inn, Portslade