Awen Veleda & The Wandering Lights – EP Review: “An Alien Invasion in the Petty Kingdoms (Part 1: Prelude)”

Awen Veleda & The Wandering Lights is a Brighton, England-based music collective that brings together musicians from around the world to create a unique brand of contemporary folk. The project is headed by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Five (who also plays guitar for the rock band 1 in Five and co-hosts a music podcast with Dr. Bones). They’ve just released their debut EP An Alien Invasion In The Petty Kingdoms (Part 1: Prelude), a concept work exploring how people deal with the unexpected, manage change through their own beliefs and context, and find ways to work together. The name Awen Veleda is a fictitious person, with ‘Awen’ meaning inspiration, while ‘Veleda’ was a 1st century prophetess who was worshipped by Germanic peoples, and her name has come to be synonymous with inspirational wisdom.

The story for An Alien Invasion In The Petty Kingdoms (Part 1: Prelude) is set in 9th Century Britain, amid an unexpected and shocking event that unfolds through the voices of various characters, all scrambling to understand the truth and come to agreement about how to deal with it. The collaborative EP is based on an original narrative and accompanying music written by Mike Five, with lyrics and lead vocals by GRIM17. In addition to Mike Five, who played guitars, organ, piano, drums, synths, shakers, tambourines and birdsong recordings, and GRIM17, for this EP The Wandering Lights is also comprised of One Blind Mouse, who performed the string arrangements and also mixed and mastered the EP, Gemma Kirk, who sang backing vocals on “A Message to the King”, Becca Wright, who played fiddle on “The Witan” and “Chieftain Caiside”, Iona James, who sang backing vocals on “The Real Ealdorman”, Ron Bowes, who played harmonica on “The Real Ealdorman”, Sadie-Rei, who sang joint lead vocals on “Lucrezia”, and Rae Cameron, who played flute on “Lucrezia”.

In advance of the EP’s release on Bandcamp on September 3rd, The Wandering Lights have also released music videos for three of the tracks. The EP will be released on all other music streaming platforms on November 5th. They’ve included all the lyrics for each song on their Bandcamp page.

The EP begins with “A Message to the King“, which describes the adventures of two messengers who travel day and night to reach the King with the terrifying news that an army of mysterious mercenaries has invaded the eastern end of the kingdom. But this is no ordinary group of heathens, as they may not even be human. Unsure themselves of what they’ve actually seen, or that anyone would believe them, their message must reach the King at all costs.

The song opens and closes with spacey sci-fi sounds, a nod to the mysterious alien nature of the invaders. But for the bulk of the track, the music settles into a dark and haunting soundscape of mournful piano and stings, accompanied by Mike Five’s strummed acoustic guitar. GRIM17’s vocals are perfect for the song’s dark mood, and Gemma King’s ethereal choral vocals add a wonderful ghostly vibe.

For the official video, Mike Five and Co. overlaid their track onto the original video for “The King” by Italian animator Goga Mason, which was itself a retelling of the classic story of King Kong. Though it’s a fascinating and compelling video, the visuals do not match the storyline of “A Message to the King”, so I’m not sure why they would use it for this song.

On track two, “The Witan“, a quickly-assembled witan advises the King to take immediate action against the invaders, but before he acts he must uncover the facts and separate them from rumor and superstition. (In England from the 6th to 10th centuries, a witan was a wise man who advised the king on specific issues, and often a member of the Witenagemote, or assembly of wise men, which was the forerunner of the future English Parliament.) Led by a dominant thumping drumbeat overlain with moody strings and acoustic guitar and highlighted by Becca Wright’s lively fiddle, the song has an ancient Celtic feel.

The Red Ealdorman” (an ealdorman, old English for alderman, was an official of Anglo-Saxon England appointed by the king, who was responsible for law, order, and justice in his shire and for leading his local fyrd, or militia) addresses the efforts by a particular official who’s sent by the King to raise the fyrd and gather an army in preparation for battle. Because of the unusual and potentially daunting circumstances behind their mysterious foe, the King will need all the help he can assemble, even from his enemies – in this case a Celtic Chieftain and his tribe. The prominent organ used in the track gives it a gospel feel, while Ron Bowes’ haunting harmonica and Iona James’ lovely backing vocals add a nice folk touch. Also, to my ears, GRIM17’s vocals on this track remind me a bit of U2’s Bono Hewson.

The video produced for this track enlisted the help of The Wandering Lights’ own army of music lovers from around the world, their own personal fyrd, if you will.

Chieftain Caiside” sees the red ealdorman, aka the crimson man, meeting with the King’s nemesis Chieftain Caiside, and delivering an urgent message of peace and unity, in their common need to defeat a newfound foe. Thankfully, the chieftain is responsive, and promises his support to the King: “The crimson man rides from my sights, with a message I sent that I hope is right. I won’t be the reason for the downfall these kingdoms may yet incur. I’ve heard your words, I’ve heard your words. Uncommon enemies.” Once again, Becca Wright’s rousing fiddle is a highlight of the song.

The final track “Lucrezia” is the most beautiful of the five, and also my favorite. At this point in the saga, the King, struggling to get to the truth, comes to the realization that the unusual challenges he faces will require creative solutions. He concludes that to achieve the greater good, one sometimes has to do something possibly sinful by comporting with beings outside his own religion, and contacts the Priestess Lucrezia to see if her visions can offer guidance – whilst praying to his own God for forgiveness. “Lucrezia, you’ve been light, love and teacher, So much for so long. But once more I must beg your indulgence. Could you lend me your song?” to which she replies with promise of her assistance that also comes with a warning: “King, I lend you arm and leg so you can make amends .Abuse them not. I am nonviolent until you force my hand.”

GRIM17’s vocals are raw, plaintive and heartfelt on this track, and the silky croons of Sadie-Rei (of the California alt-pop/punk band Until Further Notice) are as enchanting as we’d expect from a priestess. I love the sounds of chirping birds, as well as Mike Five’s beautiful acoustic guitar, One Blind Mouse’s somber strings, and Rae Cameron’s captivating flute. It’s a gorgeous ending to Part 1 of this saga, which I’m now eager to watch unfold.

CULANN – Album Review: “The Great Ecumene”

Culann album

Culann is a band from Irvine, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. Comprised of PJ Kelly (Vocals, Guitar), his brother Sean Kelly (Drums), Greg Irish (Guitar), Ross McCluskie (Keyboards) and Calum Davis (Bass), they blend folk, Celtic-rock, alt-rock, prog rock and even a bit of reggae to create their uniquely colorful and dynamic sound. Largely ignoring the norms of conventional song writing, they employ complex melodies, time changes and a perfect fusion of traditional Scottish music with a contemporary lyrical approach, resulting in a deeply satisfying and distinct sound. Since forming in 2008, they’ve performed the length and breadth of their homeland, gathering adoring fans along the way.

They released their self-titled debut album Culann in 2012, and after dropping a few singles now and then, they returned this past April (2019) with their second album The Great Ecumene, which I’m reviewing today. Curious as to what ‘Ecumene’ means, I checked Wikipedia and learned that it’s an ancient Greek term now used by geographers to mean inhabited land. It generally refers to lands where people have made their permanent home. Accordingly, many of the album tracks touch on various aspects of Scottish life and its history, and its strong connection to the sea.

The album opens with “Evonium“, a jubilant, monumental song with symphonic rock overtones that call to mind the great 70s bands Yes and Boston, with a bit of a nod to Dream Theater. The song was first released as a single more than two years ago, in May 2017. Once again, I was compelled to Google ‘Evonium’, and found the following:

Evonium is a purported lost city in Scotland that was first described by Hector Boece in his 16th-century Scotorum Historiae. According to Boece, it hosted the coronation of forty kings and was located in the Lochaber area.” Writer A.J. Morton has suggested that if Evonium actually existed, it could have been located at the band’s home of Irvine, Ayrshire. Culann assembles a rich mix of roiling guitars, exuberant piano and organ, and lots of percussion to create a powerful song befitting of the epic saga of Evonium. Lead vocalist PJ Kelly passionately sings of how the historic legacy of Evonium has shaped the lives of all who are born there:

Blood of this town, the place where I was born
A strength that’s driven in across the sea
Cut from the coast, we wake with price each morn
For all that’s past, it’s richest history
We owe our lives to our western home
Where kings and rulers stole their destiny
Shaped their lives and carved them into stone
With all that’s seen and all were yet to be, all were yet to be 

Now I understand
It’s all because I’m from Evonium
Now it’s in my hands
The greatness past fuels greatness not yet done that’s still to come

The beautiful video shows scenes of the band performing the song in historic Dundonald Castle, interspersed with scenes filmed in the Scottish countryside and Duncarron Medieval Village, a replica of an early Medieval fortified village. The album version of the track includes a somber but beautiful synth instrumental beginning at 4:15 that continues through to the end.

Next up is “Event Without Experience“, a rousing, melodically complex extravaganza of Celtic prog-rock brilliance. The intricate guitar work is fantastic, and nicely complemented by some fine keyboards, humming bass, and aggressive thumping drumbeats. I really like how PJ’s Scottish brogue shines through in his fervent vocals. Culann deliver more Celtic folk-rock grooves with the philosophical drinking song “Brewing of Ale“, and once again, the guitars, keyboards and rhythm section are perfection. The just-released video was directed & edited by Stuart Breadner, and filmed on location in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Galloway Forest Park.

Century Box” is a stomper of a tune that took a couple of listens to grab me, but once it did, I couldn’t get enough of that wonderful melody. The lively guitars are killer and I love how they perfectly meld with the piano keys, something this band does so beautifully in many of their songs. The terrific organ riff and guitar solo in the bridge are real treats.

The title track “The Great Ecumene” is a near-epic six-minute-long ode to Scotland. This is true progressive rock, with a meandering (in a good way) melody, highlighted by a smooth organ riff and accompanied by delicate piano, measured drums and a wondrous mix of guitar textures that pull you deeply into the song. PJ croons about the complexities and contradictions of his homeland: “My country is bitter. My country is cold. My country is beautiful. My country is bold. My people are bitter. My people are cold. My soul it is sacred. My spirit is sold./ Join the great ecumene, see what you find. A road never ending, stretching through time.” Everything ramps up to a crescendo in the chorus, with impassioned vocal harmonies and a cascade of crashing cymbals for a dramatic finish.

Culann keep the energy flowing on “All Reverie” with rolling guitars, galloping drumbeats and passionate vocals. “Sunken Ships” appropriately opens with underwater sounds, then launches into a glorious mix of jangly guitars, sparkling piano keys, pummeling drumbeats and a deep, humming bassline. “Aegis” is perhaps the most high-energy track on the album (and also the shortest, though still running 3:51 minutes). Frantic riffs, pounding drums and exuberant piano keys make for a real banger of a track. PJ earnestly sings the lyrics to someone who’s been his aegis, or shield, helping him to overcome some of his self doubts and fears: “Closely, look at where I have come from. You made me, you taught me to be strong and lead the way. I can’t face the outside on my own. I can’t understand them. I can’t bear the inside, my unknown. Please don’t make me stand there alone.”

The guys really show us what they’re capable of on “Man Alive“, one of the standouts on an album filled with standouts. Running over seven minutes, this song has it all: melodic change-ups that hold our attention, complex and intricate guitar work, enchanting keyboards, a marvelous funky bassline, and some of the most impeccable drumming I’ve heard in a while, not to mention PJ’s always-great vocals. As I’ve mentioned on previous tracks, the interplay between the guitars and keyboards here is so freaking good. Finally, despite it’s length, “Man Alive” seems much shorter, always a sign of a great song (unlike some songs that seem to go on forever, with me wishing they’d come to a quicker end).

The lyrics speak to the resilience of the Scottish people: “Come gather ’round, meet the gladdest man alive. You see him everyday. Come gather’ round, meet the saddest man alive. He’ll never tell you so. A blackened sense of pride. No man alive could meet the broken soul of mine.”

The song immediately segues into the closing track “Queen Street“, a poignant ballad about life on the streets of Glasgow. The song has a more stripped-back sound than their other tracks, with mainly acoustic guitar, delicate piano and gentle percussion providing a somber backdrop for PJ’s heartrending vocals. With a strong sense of despair and pain, PJ laments: “I never needed a human being more. Sat down in the street, with a cup down by my feet. Oh but nobody seen me and the traffic arrow moving ’em on. And if I needed something, and I could reach out to you and I’d ask. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it. And if I needed someone, but I’ve turned my back on everyone that I had. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate all the nuance and complexity of the songs on The Great Ecumene, but once I totally immersed myself in the music, it really came alive for me. It’s a beautiful album, and Culann’s songwriting, lyrics and musicianship are all quite impressive. These guys are masters of their respective instruments, and operate as an incredibly tight unit to create music that’s flawless, exciting and a joy to hear.

Connect with Culann: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase: Bandcamp / Big Cartel

JOHNNY KOWALSKI AND THE SEXY WEIRDOS – Album Review: “European English”

European English

Being the EclecticMusicLover, I enjoy a wide variety of music genres, and have a special appreciation for artists and bands that meld lots of different influences in the creation of their music. Well, Johnny Kowalski and the Sexy Weirdos – a self-described “body-snatching carnival punk band” from Birmingham, UK – are eclectic on steroids! And, honestly, who could possibly resist a band called ‘The Sexy Weirdos?!’ Fusing Celtic, Balkan and Gypsy folk melodies with reggae, ska, mariachi, punk and rock’n’roll, they create a uniquely eccentric sound that’s totally original and deliriously entertaining.

Like many bands, they’ve undergone some changes in membership over the years since forming in 2009. The current lineup consists of frontman Johnny Kowalski (Vocals, Lead Guitar), Chris Yates (Bass), Ilias Lintzos (Percussion), John-Joe Murray (Violin), Matthew Osborne (Drums) and Katie Stevens (Clarinet, Tenor Sax). They released their debut album Victory for the Monsters in 2012, and followed two years later with Kill the Beast. In October, they dropped their third album European English, an extraordinary work that reflects their experiences touring across Europe, as well as time spent amongst Romani gypsies and artists in Josefov, Czech Republic, where many of the album’s songs were written.

Sexy Weirdos2

Things get off to a rousing start with “Megahorse,” a lively tune that conjures up images of a Yiddish folk dance, and sets the overall tone for the album. A careful listen reveals a rich diversity of instruments at play, most notably guitar, violin, and a chirping clarinet, anchored by thumping bass and a frantic drumbeat. In his distinctive spirited vocal style, Kowalski sounds like he’s singing at a Jewish wedding as he wails “If everyone thinks it, it must be right, ’cause everyone can’t be wrong. The lies that we fight to feel safe at night, are the lies that help keep us strong.”

The band’s sense of playful silliness and love of camp is charmingly evident on the zany video, as they take turns dancing to the song (with varying amounts of success).

 

A seductive Latin-infused bass line introduces us to “Relative Rudeboy,” then a playful violin and drumbeat ensue, accentuated by Stevens’ jaunty sax and a bit of cowbell thrown in for good measure. It all makes for a fun romp that’ll have even the biggest wallflower on their feet. The hips keep swaying with the infectious “Serbian Rumba.” Murray’s sultry violin takes a starring role, and Kowalski’s low, smoldering vocals are a delight as he sings: “Why should I be thinking of you right now? Not in this place and not in this time. And now he will preach at me for a long eternity. And I will be forced to agree, that I’m an asshole yes I see.”

The band evokes the Scottish Highlands with a bit of a gypsy vibe on the exuberant instrumental “Sicilian Stallion.” I love the festive violin, flute and electric guitar work, all propelled forward by a peppy drumbeat. They keep the energy flowing with the “Minor Calamity” and bouncy “Didn’t Find the Money.”

Raggadub (Manifesto in Three Parts)” is an interesting and complex track, with added dubstep and hip-hop elements, courtesy of guest artists Anne-Marie Allen, Smut Rakhra and Jugganaut. The first part beckons us to feel a connection with each other and the earth through music and dance: “Mother earth and sister of soul. Feel that connection and let your body roll.” Part two speaks to social injustice and corruption: “Idled masses yearn to breathe free. Fat on bread for 26p. A trace of fruit, sugar and bleach. Fluoride toothpaste from the pharmacy. Rotisserie chicken is pumped with fat. The sanctity of life is on a wire rack.” Jugganaut’s vocals in the frenetic third part are sung so fast I couldn’t understand them, but it’s certainly a climactic end to an amazing track!

The lively instrumental track “Matthew Matthew” brings an explosion of fluttering clarinet, violin, guitar and crashing cymbals. Kowalski seems to channel the late Joe Strummer on the boisterous “Flight of the Juniper,” which to my ears sounds like a song that could have been done by The Clash. The guitar work on this short but powerful track is wonderful.

Closing out the album is the captivating, psychedelic-tinged “Chinese Icicles,” a real tour-de-force and one of the standout tracks. The violin in all its forms takes center stage, with electric guitar in a strong co-starring role. The band employs all sorts of exotic instruments to lend a mysterious Asian vibe to an essentially hard rock track. The song is so compelling it seems shorter than its five and a half minute length. It’s a dramatic finish to a remarkable album, which you can listen to here:

Connect with the band:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream their music on Spotify and purchase on Bandcamp