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THE MELLSTOCK BAND - Glad Tidings Serpent Press SER. 008

I don't normally enthuse about 'festive' releases, but I've enjoyed recent offerings from different 'stable' (Wassail!, St. Agnes' Fountain, the Carnival Band!) so I was not unkindly disposed towards this one . The disc's subtitle A West Gallery Christmas provides the necessary clue to the character and underlying intent of the release, which presents, amidst other not-necessarily-strictly-seasonal fare, some of the more familiar Christmas carols in less familiar guise, generally using the settings, instrumentation and singing styles of west gallery choirs of the past. For those unused to the term, West Gallery music (also known as country psalmody) is the distinctive harmony singing tradition that flourished in rural English churches from the early 1700s through till the mid-19th century. Music of extraordinary vitality that was usually composed and taught by people of humble origins rather than 'professional' composers and performers, in which respect it has kinship with several 'living traditions', such as Sheffield pub carolling and American Sacred Harp singing.

These latter traditions are also represented on this CD (there's a Sacred Harp variant of While Shepherds Watched alongside the more familiar Lyngham setting), although some purists might (inevitably) feel that such renditions aren't quite 'authentically primitive' enough. Whatever, the suitably spirited singing and playing of the Mellstock ensemble and their chosen soloists brings an appealing quality of 'lively antiquity' that's a feature of all the vocal items on the disc. The Mellstocks' approach to instrumentation is in keeping with west gallery principles, whereby the instrumentalists did not merely double the vocal parts but improvised variations and independent supporting parts - often the old bands played for dancing, which informed the playing for the carols as well as the dance tunes. The purely instrumental selections on this CD therefore range from country dances (The Triumph, Sir Roger De Coverley, Dorchester Hornpipe) through to a setting of Dives And Lazarus. An infectiously earnest delight in performance is evident in everything the Mellstocks tackle; the whole CD is well programmed, and exuberant and ebullient in the best Mellstock tradition.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 59 of The Living Tradition magazine.