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MADDY PRIOR "Ravenchild" Park Records PRKCD49

There is a voice that is pure clean and powerful, a voice that is immediately recognisable, a voice that some have called the "voice of English music". It belongs to Maddy Prior, the undisputed first lady of folk rock and pivotal figure of British folk music who has just released her thirty-fifth recording. Her early work with Steeleye (a band of folkies that discovered amplifiers), pushed at the accepted boundaries of "folk" moving it not only into rock idioms, but also into performance art, with extremely theatrical stage presentations.

Although many people would probably still be quite happy to see an endless reprise of "All Around My Hat", Maddy isn't one of them and she has continued to push at the boundaries, moving her music onwards. In '94 her solo album "Year", with Nick Holland, signalled the start of a new direction, a period of risk-taking, which later produced "Flesh and Blood" in '97, with Troy Donnockley also collaborating, and created an outstanding album which received wide critical acclaim.

"Ravenchild" follows in that mould, with traditional songs (albeit in unfamiliar settings) blended with contemporary material. On the "trad" side is an unexpected, and quite superb, heavily percussive version of "Twankidillo"; a haunting re-work of Steeleye Span's "Bold Poachers"; a radically updated "Rigs of Time"; and the earrie mystery of "Great Silkie of Sules Skerry". However, at the heart of the album are two major pieces penned by Maddy herself, "With Napoleon in Russia" and "In the Company of Ravens", both long song sets the components of which interlink to maintain their perspective as they develop into fairly epic proportions to explore the darker side - a long way from the jolly folk rock of Steeleye's hey-days. On "Napoleon" the arrangements vary from sparse and stark whistle and piano to the full-blown percussion and electric guitar on "Loot", before dropping back to a thoughtful, sensitive uilleann pipe and piano duet. Similarly on the set of songs "In the Company of Ravens" the music follows and echoes the light and shade of the lyrics, but there are also spectacular guitar and pipe solos which soar over the keyboard and percussion on the anthemic "Youngbloods". Nick Holland and Troy Donnockley are again the key musicians, and along with percussionist Terl Bryant, they generate some remarkable atmospheric sounds and extraordinary musical effects. It almost goes without saying, but the singing is excellent. Maddy's voice is strong and clear with control and passion, and perfectly at home on the darker, richer meat of "Ravenchild".

This CD is the culmination of Maddy Prior's new outlook and approach, where she apparently follows the unwritten rules of "the tradition", without actually adhering to them! A rare trick to accomplish - "Ravenchild" is not a good album, it's brilliant.

Mel Howley

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This album was reviewed in Issue 33 of The Living Tradition magazine.