Allow me to take a step back. It was correct that English neo-folk music was struggling to find a way forward in 1972. Many groups were succumbing to the larger than life music from the likes of the Who, Zeppelin, and Yes, forcing them to stray away from their folk underpinnings or create uninspired mush with little vision. This new English folk music came close to capitulating by dumbing down in pursuit of some kind of niche categorization. What was important was that a few groups had started to show a third way to go forward. Bands like Amazing Blondel showed that you can use more learned, traditional instrumentation and highly complex, sophisticated feelings in ways that could touch modern hearts.
The original neo-folk boom was lead by bands like Fairport and Pentangle who hovered around a certain plebeian image that tried to move away from the sound, and not necessarily the spirit, of the age they were covering. If, they tried to capture the sound of the era they drew influence from, they did so at their own peril, knowing that they could fall easily into the realm of pastiche. However, in doing so they were negating part of the parcel that could in fact still be relevant. Enter here a band like Amazing Blondel.
|Terry, John, Edward|
This trio of Scunthorpe multi-instrumentalists John Gladwin, Edward Baird, and Terry Wincott had an epic command of various little heard instruments in rock music. Lute, theorbo, cittern, tabor, harmonium, and crumhorn to name a few, were joined by standard folk instrumentation in a tapestry of sound that recalled early Renaissance music. This was a group was appropriately highly learned, and not afraid to show it.
Their first proper releases Amazing Blondel, Evensong (1970) and Fantasia Lindum (1971) matched sonically the neo-bard look the band portrayed in cover and performance. They existed so eruditely out of the loop of other English folk-rock groups that they were deemed overly pretentious. They were so decidedly soft from the rock loop as well, even though tour mates like Free championed them, that they were written off as fey dandy weirdos. When your “hits” included madrigals and hymns (like in the video shown at the end, a track from 1973’s England) it was increasingly hard for the rest of the neo-folk boom to accept them as part of the fold.
|England album cover.|
Blondel were treading a fine line between Medieval Renaissance Faire tropes in mannerisms and sound, in such a way that both genres refused to take them seriously. Somehow, though with each respective release they were refining, and experimenting with a complex sound no one wanted to touch. Increasingly each new album provided bits of sound any music lover could fall in love with. In 1972, all they had their a-ha moment and culminated it in England, their no apologies, full-throated acceptance of a chosen path.
This album, so refreshingly, knowingly, unRocking and decidedly owing more to the sound of court music of centuries, upon centuries, old Merrie Olde England than the more pre-industrial traditional folk other groups had mined, was powerful. Taking flight with lutes and recorders, they consistently laid down track after track of pastoral beauty totally unique for its time. The whole first side of the album itself displayed in specific terms what they were going to try to paint aurally for you: “Three Pastoral Settings For Voices, Flute, Guitars and Orchestra”. A song titled in such a desperately pretentious way either nails it or falls completely flat on its face. This time, the Blondels nail it.
This triptych starting with the lute and flute driven “Seascape”, continuing with the baroque lute and symphonic “Landscape”, and finishing with sprightly “Afterglow”, posited various ideas. Can a listener find commonality with music owed to a time when things like chivalry, wonderment, and delicate things reigned in the hearts of troubadours? Do such things still hold importance in our day and time? In all honesty, isn’t this the music of a time continuously written off as overly dainty and proper, not worth our time when we could be rocking out…but the way Amazing Blondel play of it, doesn’t something stir in your heart regardless?
That’s something I ask myself everytime I hear “Landscape”. Such a wonderful track that could have been created centuries ago, but wasn’t, does that make it any less of a value to my modern ear? Does evoking such an era make it less worthy of my time? Then I start to think of Symbolist/Neo-Romantic paintings from the likes of Gauguin, Munch or music from the likes of Satie, Debussy, and others. Are they any less worthy of our time and admiration because post-modern, minimalism, or pop art exists? or because Terry Riley, Cornelius Cardew, Pere Ubu, and the Clash exist we have to metaphorically “kill” all our ex-idols as well? I don’t know, for me the canvas might change but the artwork can still hit the same. Papa likes, what papa likes. Its up to us to see whether we want to dumb ourselves down and refuse to recognize brilliance anywhere you feel it. I’ve got more great stuff to share from 1973’s England tomorrow though…
Bonus track time, a video of them performing “Cantus Firmus to Counterpoint”, off the same album, in 1972: