These are two different yet entirely complementary releases which could go some way towards bridging the gap between the audiences of Hayley Griffiths’ two great musical loves. And there’s really no way that can be a bad thing!
You know what they say about buses, right? Wait for ages and then two come at once. Well, this is the kind of situation fans of ex-Karnataka singer Hayley Griffiths may find themselves in as these two albums are released simultaneously, on the exact same day. After a layoff of a few years owing to the small matters of child-rearing and pesky global pandemics, with only a live album and a couple of singles in terms of new music, this double helping of Hayley is certainly going to bring some post-Christmas cheer to many a devotee slogging through the cold, wet and dark misery which only January can bring. But hang on, some will be asking – is this some kind of Guns ‘n’ Roses thing, a la Use Your Illusion I&II, or even Springsteen with his simultaneous dropping of Human Touch and Lucky Town way back when? And the answer would be, no, not at all. Where those releases were largely just pairs of albums shoved out on the same day (Springsteen claimed his were entirely different emotional beasts, but that’s rather questionable), this pair of albums are targeted at two very different demographics. Of course, many fans may fall within both of those categories, but there will be a lot of people who could well be drawn to one of these discs without feeling the need for the other. While Melanie is a full-on rock album, and is the debut studio offering from The Hayley Griffiths Band, Far From Here is by contrast a Celtic-leaning folk and folk-rock record which is a different kettle of proverbial fish altogether. Let’s have a look at both, and see what they each have to offer…
Taking Melanie first is the logical step, as it is the album which will have the most immediate appeal to those prog rock fans who have followed Hayley since the Karnataka days. Recorded by the newly-minted Hayley Griffiths Band, it will be a source of pleasure for that particular section of the audience ‘Venn Diagram’ that the style here is one which those who loved the superb Secrets Of Angels album can approach entirely without reservation. Yes, this is certainly a record which can be comfortably bracketed as a ‘prog rock’ release – albeit very much at the song-driven end of the spectrum – but is is also very much a ‘rock’ album, in that there is no dalliance with tricky time signatures, shimmering beds of mellotron or lengthy acoustic noodling. Right from the intro to the opening track Broken Lullaby, this is music which possesses power, heft and a fire in its belly which it is eager to set free. This may not be what you would call ‘progressive metal’, but it is still resolutely unafraid of deploying power chordage and heavy riffery to satisfy any listener’s hunger. It’s simultaneously symphonic, epic and heavy in almost equal measure, and to these ears it lands just in the straight-between-the-ears sweet spot.
The danger, of course, when setting a crystal-clear vocal style such as Hayley’s against a band eager to crank the volume and bound out of the traps, is that the vocals could get overwhelmed (you wouldn’t drop Annie Haslam into the middle of a Black Sabbath reunion, for example). In this case, however, there is no need to worry. Just as, on the more powerful sections of Secrets Of Angels, Hayley proved herself to have the instinctive quality of seeming to ride on the top of the music rather than trying to compete with it, such is very much the case here. Even when the guitars ramp up, every word and every nuanced syllable is allowed to breathe and find its own space – something which, in part, can surely be attributed to the production work of Hayley’s partner and longtime drummer, Jimmy Pallagrosi.
There are an abundance of standout tracks on the album – the aforementioned Broken Lullaby for one, and the title track and the earworm-catchiness of Made My Bed for another two, but the one to grab the immediate attention of prog rock fans the most is probably the closing track on the album proper, Dust To Gold. Featuring a guest vocal appearance from the multi-talented Nick D’Virgilio (of Spocks Beard, Big Big Train and even drums on Genesis’ Calling All Stations album), the song goes through several distinct sections over its seven minute duration, dropping down into a mid-section which is arguably the most overtly ‘prog’ passage on the whole record, before building up to a memorable climactic coda which should be guaranteed to be a definite highlight of live performances. You will note, however, that I used the words ‘the album proper’ when describing that closing piece. Well, there’s a reason for that: namely, if you get the CD digipak version of the album, you get the extra bang of three bonus tracks for your buck, in the shape of three earlier songs – Separated By Glass and the singles Aurora and Haunted. All three are more than welcome additions, each being easily strong enough to grace the album on their own merit, and also each displaying a slightly different facet of the band’s sound; Separated By Glass is the most memorable song of the three, Haunted the heaviest and Aurora the most epically grandiose. It’s a great touch to have these tracks rounded up here in their studio incarnations, as all were highlights of the band’s pre-pandemic shows in 2019.
So far so good in terms of Hayley’s rock credentials, but a large chunk of her heart (a ventricle at the very least!) has always been with Celtic folk music, dating back to her earliest solo recordings and also her time with the Riverdance show. With the second of these two concurrent releases, Far From Here, this is the side she has chosen to display front and centre. That isn’t the full story, however, as although that Celtic folk influence is the seed allowing this beautifully recorded album to flower, its full scope encompasses traditional folk music from right across the British Isles, and also scatters some full-band arrangements amid the sombre laments to make this a natural fit with the folk-rock produced by the likes of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention over the years.
In common with those two venerable and influential bands, there is also some contemporary material here as well as the traditional arrangements, in the shape of the title track (courtesy of Mike Stobbie, who is heavily involved instrumentally in the recording, handling the keyboard and production duties) and the closing Caledonia, which was penned by Dougie Maclean in 1977 and has since been covered by a number of other artists including Frankie Miller. The title song Far From Here opens the album, and was deservedly the initial choice for a single, as it is a great song given a tremendous full-band treatment, and a clear and obvious highlight on the record. Fans of the rockier side of the folk-rock spectrum will be pleased to see that around half of the tracks here are given a fuller arrangement with the presence of Jimmy Pallagrosi’s drums, and these all work well. Top of the heap for me would be the traditional Irish song Star Of The County Down, which is given such an infectiously rollicking treatment that you almost feel as if you are there, kicking up your heels at a Harvest Fair in pursuit of your would-be lady love. There are quite a few songs included here which will be familiar to almost everyone – there can be very few people not to be intimately acquainted with Scarborough Fair, Loch Lomond or The Skye Boat Song, while many British listeners in particular will know When You Were Sweet Sixteen from the unexpected Top 20 hit in 1981 by The Fureys With Davey Arthur. Others, however, will likely only be known by folk devotees – Siuil A Ruin, Black Is The Colour and the shimmering lament The Parting Glass for example. She Moved Through The Fair is one which has been covered by a multitude of artists as diverse as Pentangle, Fairport, Barbra Dickson and Van Morrison to name a few, yet will probably be a new discovery to many.
The big plus of this album over any of Hayley’s other recordings is the stunning quality of her voice. Crystal clear, and near perfection in terms of intonation, pitch and emotional depth, this is the recording I personally would use to convince anyone of the remarkable quality her singing possesses at its best. Sparsely accompanied traditional songs may for some lack the excitement or drama of a big rock track, but there can be few more effective ways to showcase the human voice in its most stripped down and elemental way – and such is undeniably the case here. While there are no weak songs as such on the album, if I were to point to a fault I would have to say that, towards the end of the record, there are slightly too many consecutive slow and one-paced songs. On their own, The Parting Glass and the superbly done rendition of The Skye Boat Song are both tremendous, but when followed by the almost funereally slow-paced arrangement of When You Were Sweet Sixteen, just cause a little ‘lament fatigue’ to set in. One more upbeat track slotted into the running order at that point would, I feel, have helped the flow of the album. Mind you, all is certainly forgiven when, after the well-known strains of Loch Lomond have us debating between the high road and the low road, Caledonia arrives to close the album in a perfect manner. Already a deservedly well-regarded song, the treatment of it here is just superb, and will very likely cause more than a few patrons to have ‘something in their eye, honest’ when performed live.
While Melanie will understandably be the album most anticipated by Karnataka fans and the like, they should definitely give Far From Here a go, as it is clear from even a cursory listen just how much of Hayley’s soul has been imparted into these well-chosen songs. And similarly, folk lovers drawn to that latter album might well be surprised just how much they might get from a curious listen to Melanie. So, to go back to the beginning of this review – no, this is certainly not Guns ‘n’ Roses with the ego-driven overkill of the Use Your Illusion releases – rather, these are two different yet entirely complementary releases which could go some way towards bridging the gap between the audiences of Hayley Griffiths’ two great musical loves. And there’s really no way that can be a bad thing!