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Sol Invictus

Artist Mike Billington
Title Sol Invictus
Release Date 2015-03-12
Genre Folk > Irish Folk
Copyright © Epona Records

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Sol Invictus

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You may remember Mike from the 70s renaissance-styled band Rebec; these days, he plays with the band Radnor, but I’ve come across him as one half of the duo Corvus, who released a quirky, if wilfully esoteric album (Gloves Of The Skin Of A Fish) a couple of years ago. It inhabited a strange, dark dimension involving modern takes on ancient folk myths melded with a medieval-to-renaissance instrumentation, and provided a compelling and sometimes disconcerting listening experience that also proved curiously comforting.Mike’s solo album, Sol Invictus, was recorded around 18 months after the Corvus album, and represents a comparatively relaxed, if in the end rather wayward, selection of material that brings some contemporary songwriting into the mix to complement his usual preoccupations. However, especially in its early stages, Mike focuses our attention more directly on basic traditional sources. Nine of its tracks are what might be termed fairly straight renditions of traditional songs, ranging in depth and effectiveness from fine accounts of Long Lankin and The Snows That Melt The Soonest and a better-than-plausible interpretation of Bonny At Morn through to a less-than-persuasive, brisk runthrough of The Trees They Do Grow High. The latter, along with Flowers Of The Forest, tends unfortunately to emphasise that Mike’s singing is sometimes not his strongest suit, for these two songs in particular suffer from a distinct flatness of intonation.There’s also a revisit of Newlyn Town (from the Corvus set-list). Mike accompanies himself on an impressive variety of instruments (guitar, bass guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, ukulele, recorder, crumhorn, rauschpfeife, tin whistle, melodeon, Spanish and Highland bagpipes, glockenspiel and assorted percussion), with help from sundry sessioners comprising Corvus colleague Bill Pook, Phil Davenport and Mickey Van Gelder (guitars), Nicola Smalley (violin), Ruth Spargo (cello), Rebecca Millington (clarinet), also backing vocalists Fiona Simpson and Shelley Rainey and Karen Dyson (aka two of The Bailey Sisters). Interestingly too, Maartin Allcock brings some “string bass and concertina samples” to Mike’s cover of Tom Yates’ lovely, inclusive anthem Bide a While (for which, by happy coincidence, Mike brings in as backing singer Bram Taylor, who had originally recorded the song on his own album of the same name almost exactly 40 years ago).The nature (and status) of Sol Invictus as curio-cum-curate’s egg, hinted at above, is further accentuated by the unashamed, if somewhat fish-out-of-water interpolation of New York Girls and late-20s novelty-vaudeville number Button Up Your Overcoat (which I guess we all learnt from the nascent Bonzos!). And then, arguably even more so by the disc’s being bookended by music of a deliberately early-music persuasion, for it opens with a flourish with a recitation of Chaucer and a strident combination of Playford and a medieval Ductia, and ends with a sequence of four very brief medieval tunes. Even those listeners of more adventurous persuasion and eclectic taste may find the juxtapositions a touch uncomfortable, or else opine that the disc as a whole doesn’t quite hang together – a verdict with which I’d not entirely disagree, notwithstanding its many idiosyncratic charms.