It’s almost two years since the Familiars – who, at the time, were unremarkably unFamiliar – released their debut album, CunningFolk; and six months since the follow up Martyred Hearts arrived to prove that it was no freak.
A simple folk trio they may be on paper, but the sound of the Familiars is nigh-on orchestral, if the strings were hanging from the barest trees, the percussion was only pounded at night, the fiddle was whatever the weather decided to throw at you… and stage center, a voice of such feral magnetism that Joanna Swan could be proclaiming her guilt at the witch trials, and still the prosecutor would be demanding she be freed.
Overall, Martyred Hearts is less obsessively traditional than its predecessor, and there’s probably nothing here to match the raucous bawdiness of that album’s take on “Cuckoo’s Nest” – recorded live, and so splendidly earthy that even Ashley Hutchings’ hitherto most familiar rendition is all but a madrigal by comparison.
But “The Shaming of Agnes Leman” is as cautionary a tale of adultery and admonition as you could hope for – reminiscent in tone to Jake Thackray’s “Widow of Bridlington” (and, fleetingly, oddly, Al Stewart’s “Roads to Moscow”) but harsher and harder; while “Everso Cross In Newquay” is Thackray again, set to martial Cossack clog dancing, and bemoaning the fate that awaits any passing beatniks in a conservative coastal town.
The album’s hearts, however, are “52 Hz Waltz,” a chillingly, but gorgeously, personal ballad of loneliness and dislocation that was inspired, says writer Swan, by a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome delivered in her late thirties; and “Sons of Clovis” – an eight minute epic set in the Seventh Century reign of the Merovingian KIng Clovis II and his wife Balthilda – an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who tradition insists was born in the same neck of the eastern English woods as the Familiars themselves hail from.
Mesmeric, haunting, and utterly compelling, the legend of the woman destined to be canonized Saint Balthild of Ascania, but whose belief in her own Gods was as much a part of her triumph as her adherence to Christianity, is truly the centerpiece of this magnificent album – and perhaps, inspiration, too, behind what is one of the most striking album covers of recent times.
The Familiars are still in the process of breaking out of the cozier confines of cultdom in the UK – but the recent rise of the Unthanks, and the seething groundswell behind so many other current folk acts, should remind any nay-sayers that the music itself has never fallen from fashion; only its standard-bearers. But a new generation is arising, and the Familiars should soon be familiar to all. For all its strength and maturity, Martyred Hearts is still only the beginning.
Visit the Familiars here
Buy Martyred Hearts here