Kings of the South Seas (D.Wink / Proper Music Distribution)
Available 17th November 2014
These John Parish-produced tales of nineteenth-century whaling trips from Kings of the South Seas are a brooding and mysterious triumph, says Louder Than War’s Paul Margree.
The first British whaling ships left London for the South Seas in 1776, chasing sperm whales whose oil was needed to power the machines of the industrial revolution and fill the lamps in homes across the nation.
The oil had previously been imported from the American colonies but the outbreak of what would become the War of Independence put paid to that. Keen to establish a new source for this crucial oil, the British Government announced that a bounty would be paid for ships returning with whale oil, and there was no looking back.
There were already ships heading north into Arctic seas, in search of bowheads, from ports such as Liverpool and Whitby, Aberdeen and Peterhead. But the haul from the sperm whales was bigger, with a single sperm whale head yielding up to 2,000 gallons of oil.
How do you stay sane on months and years journeying to the bottom of the world? You tell stories, sing songs. About the loved ones you’re missing as the wind howls in your face during a tropical storm. About the danger and exhaustion from working all day and all night as you chase the whales. About the legends you’ve heard while the sun beats your back as you swab down the blood and blubber from the splintered deck.
Maybe, when you get back, these songs will be heard and re-sung, and one day caught like the stray butterfly, trapped in a net while others flutter off into the endless blue sky, and written down, to be stored in libraries and anthologies of traditional song.
And, indeed in this album, in which where musicians Ben Nicholls, Richard Warren and Evan Jenkins have taken a selection of broadsides, hymns and traditional songs based on those voyages to the South Sea Islands, recasting them in new musical settings that merge folk melodies with brooding rock textures.
Recorded over three intense days at London’s Cecil Sharp House – one of Britain’s primal nodes of traditional music – and produced by veteran knob twiddler John Parish, it’s a marvelous beast, combining the Bad Seeds’ creeping gothic glamour with the austere out of time weirdness common to the best outsider folk wayfarers.
Weary Whaling Grounds’ blend of squeezebox and tremelo’d guitar blends of the archaic and contemporary to great effect, producing a lovely wheezing and shimmering fuzz, which is nailed down by Evan Jenkins’ chunky drumming. Even the more spritely tunes, Sailor’s Frolic or Life In The East, and Eight Bells, have a gravelly, booming sound ensuring that the tweeness too common to much modern folk recordings is well and truly keelhauled.
At the centre of this album are the broadsides and ballads, which give the songs on this album its dark heart. I Never Missed My Home’s nostalgic lament could be a predecessor to New Orders’ Love Vigilantes in its tale of a voyager returning home to tragedy.
“I returned at last, but Ho! / What an amazing blow/Was To find my mother and father dead and gone”.
“The voyages they were going on were four years long,” says Nicholls of the trips which gave birth to these songs. “The conditions on the ships were appalling. They could be stuck round the other side of the world, shipwrecked, eaten by cannibals in various places. It was a pretty horrendous scene.”
Nevertheless Nicholls renders these weary tunes beautifully, his smooth baritone somewhere between Wire’s Graham Lewis and folk-rock maverick Richard Thompson, giving a mellow texture to the sinuous traditional melodies that wind and sashay through the tunes. On Great Sea Snake – a sailor’s yarn taken from an 1840’s broadside – his delivery hits just the perfect storyteller’s balance of terror and wit as he describes encountering the titular reptile “who measured two miles long” which had a colony of missionaries and sailors lodged on its back for “ a year or two with oxen, pigs and sheep” .
Coast of Peru, meanwhile, captures the blend of optimism and cynicism of the sailor heading off into the unknown in search of riches. Progressing at a funereal pace, lurching ominously like a skiff tossed in a gale, the song slowly charts the gore-ridden reality of tracking down these monsters of the deep. “The whale began to vomit and blood began to spout/And in less than 10 minutes we had her fin out,” snarls Nicholls. “She is better to us, boys, than 500 pounds,” comes the grim assertion once the business is done.
Despite these grim rewards, British interest in South Sea whaling declined through the middle of the 19th century, with the last sperm oil from landed in London in 1859. After that British ships went further south, to the Antarctic, and continued to haunt the northern waters, powered by faster boats and more efficient ways of killing.
The old South Sea whaling died out, but these songs remain, full of wonder and horror, tall tales to be recounted to incredulous grandchildren around the fire. By channeling these ghosts of the past into new settings, Nicholls and his crew have given them new life. A gnarled wonder.
Pre-order Kings of The South Seas here.
The album will be launched at Cecil Sharp House on Tuesday 18th November. The night will be opened by acclaimed author, Philip Hoare, whose book Leviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009. The band will be accompanied by a film of found footage created by Bafta nominated documentary maker Adam ClitheroeGet tickets here.