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SteerbytheStars'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself.
The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina.
Telling the Bees bandTrack two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live.
The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section.
'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right...
Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange.
Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man.
'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird.
'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..."
Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played.
'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet a-wandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin.
Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instrumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be.
telling the beesThis is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to.
An English ArcanumI was hooked on TTB from the first track on their d├ębut album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!

Greywolf /|\

*In case you're wondering, my absolute favourite band is The Incredible String Band, while others include The Screaming Blue Messiahs, The Ramones, and Dr. Strangely Strange.

186: Imbolc - Spring Equinox 2013The Beltaine issue of Pagan Dawn will be out soon and will feature an article I was asked to write; a short overview of modern Druidry. This was not easy to write as there are just so many different Druidries around these days. There are at least a couple of dozen Druid groups in the UK, a similar number in America, several in Australia, others in France and elsewhere. Between them they represent a very wide spectrum of practice and belief, from the strictly cultural, Christian Druids of the Welsh Gorsedd to American Celtic Reconstructionists via Masonic-style friendly societies and even an insurance company. I did my best to be as inclusive as possible in the given space, but am aware that I was only really able to scratch the surface. In order to make some kind of sense, I focussed mainly on the groups who represent what Ronald Hutton has called the New Druidry, i.e. those that have come into being since the formation of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1964. The article is illustrated with photos from Elaine Wildways. The graphic shows the current Winter issue.My good friend and long-time BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, has an article coming out in the next issue of Pentacle, also due out next month, so watch out for that too. Again, the graphic here is from the Winter issue.
Meanwhile, my latest piece for the BDO ovate course has been a rumination on the role of group ritual and how to inject meaning into it. This was brought about by re-watching a video called Shamans of the Blind Country, a brilliant 1981 documentary on shamanism amongst the Magar people of central Nepal. Their rituals often involve the whole village, much dressing up, a fair bit of ribaldry and silliness and quite a lot of laughter. This contrasted strongly with what I remembered of Christian church services in my youth which were invariably deadly serious and deadly dull. Some Druid rites I've attended have unfortunately been more C of E than Magar. Pagan festivals to Dionysus were definitely more along the Magar lines, beginning with processions of youths William S. Burroughsbearing long poles with bronze or wooden penises attached to the ends towing a cart with a very big penis in it. It's hard to be solemn when you're decked in greenery and waving a big willy in the air. Sometimes we forget that spirituality can be fun. In fact, I believe it should be fun. Incidentally, a curious aspect of the Shamans of the Blind Country is that it is narrated by William S. Burroughs, author of Junkie, The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine.
My current writing task is another magazine article, this time for Dreampunk, a magazine put together by long-time BDO friend, Allegra Hawksmoor. Dreampunk brings together the worlds of Steampunk, alternative spirituality and ecology. To quote from the homepage, Dreampunk aims "To build a world of equality, liberty and community that reaches for wonder, invention, and a more balanced relationship with ourselves, one another, and with the wild world around us." My article is about consciousness-changing in contemporary Druidry, and I should get back to writing it. It'll appear later in the year.
Peace and love,
Greywolf /|\