Allen and Douglas are a singing & songwriting duo from Birmingham, UK who play an interesting and pleasing style of folk rock. They’re also two prolific guys, recording and releasing eight albums – containing an astonishing total of 128 songs – in under five years! (They pack a lot of tracks into their albums, with each containing anywhere from 14-20 songs.) Their latest offering is The Spider and the Phoenix, which dropped this past March. It’s an ambitious work with 17 tracks, and is essentially a concept album in two parts, though it flows beautifully as one large production.
Lifelong friends, Craig Allen and Steven Douglas began writing songs in their teens. In their bio, they expand a bit on their background and what the latest album is about:
“Strumming, singing and writing away in old railway stations and under canal bridges we developed our sound, harmonies and song-craft as young men through hard work and trial and error. Nowadays after several hiatuses due to differing work and travel paths, we practice and record regularly in a small bedroom studio in Birmingham, UK. We write primarily for pleasure, producing many genres of music. Our latest body of work ‘The Spider and the Phoenix’ is conceptual and charts a journey from depression to recovery.”
They also have a cheeky sense of humour (notice I used the British spelling):
“The Spider” kicks off the album, not only setting the tone on a musical level, but also establishing the overall theme of depression, represented metaphorically by a spider that spins its web inside our minds, gradually taking over our personality and poisoning our thoughts. The jangly, heavily strummed guitars and spooky keyboard synths lend an unsettling feel to the track, and the guys’ earnest vocals exhibit a hint of menace as they sing: “The Spider inside your mind spins and winds. The Spider deals in junk, what does he find? And I was doing fine.”
The melancholy “I Can’t Stand the Pain” speaks to a relationship that’s unraveling: “You scream it’s finished. And I feel diminished.” Listening to the album, one of the things that strikes me is the strong Pink Floyd vibe running throughout, and this song reminds me a bit of “Comfortably Numb” with it’s interesting use of keyboards and sweeping synths. And the even sadder “So Blue” finds the singer sinking into despair over his emotional abandonment: “So blue, so very blue. Drowning in memories. / Dissecting reality from dreams, I’m struggling upstream. / Rejection is a mother.”
One of the prettiest tracks is “Set Sail Suite,” a mostly instrumental composition with hauntingly beautiful string and keyboard synths. The song is briefly interrupted in the middle with a sweet interlude of delicate acoustic guitar and the guys’ distant echoed vocals that sing “Set sail, set sail on your way. You never have the courage to sail.” “Dark Matters” is pure folk rock, and really channels Pink Floyd, especially in the vocals. The song has the singer lamenting his state of loneliness: “Since you left me I’ve been so lonely. / Dark matters swirling round my brain. Too much space drives me insane.” These feelings of loss are affirmed on “The Sun Went Out Last Night,” as they sing “I find myself crawling since she went away.”
“Nothing Comes Out to Play” and “Through the Eye of a Needle” wrap up the depression part of the album. Both tracks have some interesting music touches, thanks to a greater use of synths and organ. The latter is a somber but lovely piece, and finds the singer concluding that the one who broke his heart is not a good person after all, and therefore not worth wasting any more tears on: “You didn’t realize you were dead in the heart. Trampling innocent people filled with fear. You were so busy doing damage. You didn’t realize you would leave tears along the path.”
“Wrap it Up” is the first track of the 2nd half of the album “The Phoenix,” that represents recovery. It speaks of beginning the healing process by regaining your sense of sanity: “Catch your psychosis, wrap it up in cellophane. Don’t let it breathe. Squeeze out the pain. / Don’t bubblewrap your brain.” “And When All Hope is Gone” is actually a quite hopeful tune, with tentative piano and electric guitar notes that gradually expand into a pleasing melody that seems to evoke sunshine breaking through a layer of clouds: “The sun will shine again, and it will lead me from this pain.” This sunshine is celebrated in the cheerful “Rainbows in the Sky,” and the jangly strummed guitars on the track are especially nice.
“Yellow Blue” speaks to a brand new day, while the raw and bluesy “Quite Like You” has the singer extolling the virtues of a new woman who’s captured his attention and heart. The track has some great guitar and honky-tonk sounding piano.
“The Phoenix” is a declaration of survival and rebirth: “Found myself again. / Shook off the feathers. New feathers give me flight. I feel myself again. Same me, shining very bright. I feel I can fly, I feel I can soar holding hands with the sky.” The song is one of the more interesting tracks on the album from a musical standpoint, with a heavily-strummed guitar riff accompanied by xylophone and plucky electric guitar. At the break, the track transitions with an awesome psychedelic flourish of distorted guitar and organ that continues through to the end. The guys shout “Ha Ha, I am the phoenix!”
The guys turn their attention back to that exciting new woman who’s got their juices flowing on the bouncy, romantic tune “Overflowing.” And album closer “Sweet Sweet Dreams” ends things on an upbeat note, with the singer appraising his happy situation with his new love. It’s a pleasing ending to an expansive work that encompasses a broad range of emotions from pain, despair and bitterness, to acceptance, hope and, finally, joy. This was a terrific concept and theme for an album, and I applaud Allen & Douglas for their skill and success in translating their vision into a coherent and finely-crafted work of near-epic proportions. Their creativity, songwriting and musicianship are impressive, and they should be very proud of The Spider and the Phoenix.