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David Kidman of Netrythms

reviews Crux by Crucible

This fab Sheffield four-piece goes from strength to strength! Their first CD, Changeling, appeared less than two years ago, and received some very good press, although it took a string of live appearances for their reputation to be cemented. But I was certainly most impressed with that debut CD, even more so when I learned that the band had only been together a short time in that form when it went in to the studios to make that CD! Crucible was formed, essentially, to focus on singing English traditional song, to provide an outlet for that side of the members individual talents which was not catered for in their parallel membership of ceilidh bands Hekety and Jabadaw. Crucible, though a distinct separate entity from the members other musical pursuits and engagements, is however emphatically not to be regarded as a poor-relation second-string activity, for each of the four happens to be a damnably fine singer and their excellent grasp of, and commitment to, the song repertoire would put many a song-based folk ensemble to shame. But as Ive hinted, all four are also strong and very capable instrumentalists (ooh Im so jealous!!) - Rich is the box player, Gavin the guitarist (who gets to bring his cittern out too this time round), and Jess and Helena the fiddlers and so their approach to the material is as all-round musicians in the widest sense and informed by their expertise in the field of playing for dance (notably morris). And Crucibles second CD is intelligently named too - crux meaning the basic or central or critical point or feature. Crucible certainly get to the heart of the matter in their interpretations, and display both an intelligence and thoughtful musicality in so doing, while - and this is the clinching factor and inarguably the crux of their appeal - bringing back the guts (and Attitude) to the much-maligned folk genre. In this respect alone, while Changeling was a bloody good CD in itself and stood up to the competition with honours, Crux is streets ahead again and a giant stride both musically and in artistic development terms. An unshakeable confidence was always right there both in the singing and in the playing, but even this has been stepped up a few notches, particularly in the singing and especially in the organic way the ensemble work defines and develops the internal voicings (voices particularly, but also instrumental lines) within any given setting. Their new-found confidence in using studio facilities is apparent too, as is the additional layer of expertise and attack born out of 18 months hard gigging and road-testing of innovative and adventurous musical arrangements. And of course, the sheer originality of these, which in turn is the fruit of hours of grass-roots-level hard graft and research into the sources; every single setting is worked on and worked up until it feels right, a process which may have taken a considerable time!
A good example here is the Crucible take on Sorry The Day I Was Married, which marries (sorry!) the tune normally associated with Gan To The Kye with a text that creatively conjoins existing fragments and additional verses taken from Halliwells Nursery Songs And Rhymes, all in a rather mournful minor-mode setting. But in truth, each of the other songs on the CD has some special characteristic to commend it: theres the strange and powerful though almost wilfully obscure Old Horse, originally collected from a traveller by Jim Eldon, and the 17th century Broadside ballad Whipping Cheer (obviously not the product of a folk-club S&M Night!), alongside an interestingly altered-rhythm version of Fair Maid Walking, complete with morris-style slowing-down for the final verse. Jack Come Sell Your Fiddle, appended to a clutch of tunes, is a spirited adaptation of a nursery rhyme, while Ron Angels defiant Chemical Workers Song proves an unusual but effective contemporary choice once youve got used to Crucibles melting-pot of equally unorthodox harmonies. Representing the Social Harp collection this time round is Within The Shadowed Secrecy, while Thieves Song (largely Gavs own composition) is a timely commentary on contemporary attitudes. Theres also an interesting rendition of a little-known John Kirkpatrick song Georges Son, and Helena turns in a fine version of The 14th Of November, which she found in the George Butterworth collection.
Crucibles vocal work, youthful yet mature, is exceptional, the harmonies often spine-chilling, for while any harmonic opportunities are invariably grasped with all four sets of tonsils theres no sense of over-egging or of harmonic niceties for their own sake that can beset singing groups, and definitely no pretty harmonising. For Crucibles is more the forthright, in-yer-face approach to singing that youd associate with a Cordelias Dad rather than an Artisan or a Quartz, say, and yet its rough edges and often discomforting tones are symptomatic not of any hasty ill-preparedness or lack of proper technique but of a deliberate decision to eschew overt prettiness and sing it with balls. The essence of Crucible is their willingness to experiment, and specifically when compared to other song-based ensembles, in that each of the four singers is vocally an equal in terms of overall strength, rather than it feeling like a lead singer with a backing band. This intrinsic equality of parts enables them to ring changes which keep the mix constantly fresh and exciting. Each is a strong singer, individual and distinctive in timbre, yet they blend together extraordinarily well. I noticed this with Changeling, but on Crux I found Gavs singing in particular to be stronger than ever, his distinctive tones cutting through the texture like nobodys business, with a stridency thats really tremendously appealing.
In all, Crux presents us with just over an hour of music, which is certainly not too long for it contains oodles of variety in pace and mood during the course of its 13 tracks. There are just three purely instrumental tracks, each one strikingly different in character. Track 3 is a supremely sprightly set of morris tunes thats given an unusual, almost medieval twist by the part-doubling and dark-toned gamba-consort-like blend of string tones and parts. Pink Gin/Mopping Nelly is an intriguing set on which a curiously insistent little pizzicato motif develops into a distinctly Breton-sounding tune (played on bagpipes) that turns out to have been taken from Vickers Great Northern Tune Book. The finale sets a feisty Playford medley of determinedly lusty richness, where the sheer oomph of Crucibles attack at times recalls that of Spiers & Boden, but sans stomp-board!
So, summing up, Crux is a CD that any folk enthusiast owes it to him/herself to hear. It communicates the four individuals commitment to the music, and their joy in making it, with an unbridled enthusiasm tempered with good sound sense, They take the trouble to thoroughly credit their sources, and while they take their music-making seriously they clearly have great fun doing so, and this comes across forcefully to the listener. Crux is destined to become one of my folk albums of the year, no question.