April was a pretty jam packed month review-wise for yours truly and I had to pass on several albums I would have covered in less hectic times. Though my dance card was full, as soon as I heard a few seconds of Heathen Hymns by hitherto unknown to me Galley Beggar, I started clearing space. Galley Beggar may have a name that conjures images of the worst pirate-corish, Alestorm-wannabes, but they play what they dub “acid folk,” and freely admit to an obsession with old sounds and styles. Their music is in the tradition of 60s rock acts like Fairport Convention and Pentangle, and you’ll also hear similarities to the folksy side of Led Zeppelin and even Fleetwood Mac. Yet it also has a subtle, mysterious goth rock vibe slithering through the folk revivalism leaving a slightly dark, oily trail. Is it metal? Not exactly. Is it good? Oh yeah! This is some seriously enchanting, groovy stuff sure to conjure images of Woodstock, free love and hippies running amok in fields of green.
Opener “Salome” is the tune that got me frantically moving my review schedule around to accommodate the album and once you hear it, you’ll know why. It’s a mesmerizing piece of hippie magic with so much 60s aura it almost imparts a contact high. Maria O’Donnell’s voice is captivating and seductively soothing and the backing music makes excellent use of guitar and mandolin to suck you into the hazy, lazy past. It’s trippy and psychedelic without losing the story, which is all about top-notch songwriting. You only need to hear this song once to love it. Hell, I only needed to hear a minute of it. “Four Birds” weaves in the aforementioned goth vibe, reminding me a lot of The Eden House though there are nods to Houses of the Holy era Led Zeppelin in the shuffling drum-work. The chanting vocals craft a powerful spell and it’s a brilliant piece of writing with a certain atmosphere that’s hard to explain and impossible to resist.
At no point does the band let you off the hook, as one high-level flower power anthem follows another, resulting in a trance-inducing album that takes you drifting through the purple haze. The band tackles the ancient folk standard “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and transforms it into a beautiful 60s era ballad with Indian influenced music floating behind the guitars and vocals. It’s the kind of song you’d imagine playing as you were lured into a hippie commune by the pretty blonde you followed home from the beach. “Moon and Tide” is a gentle, undulating wave of a song, gorgeous and compelling, magical and mysterious. Its raga rock speaks to the inner child hidden within us all; the one that still believes in magic, myth and wonderment. That kid doesn’t get out much these days, so he/she deserves this!
There isn’t a wasted note to be found on Heathen Hymns and I can’t recall the last time I was so enamored with an album this quickly. At a concise 43 minutes, it feels like the perfect length. The sound is amazing, with a rich, warm, old timey production and the drums in particular sound organic and crisp. Maria’s siren song vocals are given ample room to breathe and never dominate the proceedings. It’s just a top-notch production perfectly suited to this style of music. If there’s a knock against the album, it’s that 2 of 8 tracks are covers of folk standards. Even so, I can’t stop spinning this thing.
Maria O’Donnell is a real talent and her smooth, unforced delivery puts every song over the top. She never over-sings or tries to do too much, content to chant and hypnotize in the spaces left her by the acid-drenched guitar and mandolin. The band also includes all sorts of folk instrumentation like fiddles and what sounds like a sitar, but always use them sparingly and subtly. Guitarists David Ellis and Matt Fowler put on a clinic on how to play to the song, not over it, delivering understated riffing until it’s time to cut loose with a jam or spacey solo (“The Girl I Left Behind Me” being the best example). Even these jams are more controlled than you’d expect, never going over to the dark side of Lord Yngwie. Paul Dadswell’s kit-work channels a mellower John Bonham and his little fills and flourishes put the icing on the ecstacy-laced cupcake. This is psychedelic folk rock done by those who love the style deeply and it shows.
Maybe the astrologists got it wrong. Maybe 2017 heralds the Age of Aquarius. If that means more music this good, I’m ready to welcome my new hippie overlords. Heathen Hymns isn’t the heaviest thing you’ll hear this year, but it may be one of the best. There’s something special here that defies mere description. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself and see if the magic strikes you. Hair peace.