Album review: Firefay – Tales of Monsters and Fairies

Source: album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

London based Firefay have been quietly releasing their consistently engaging and unique takes on psychedelic folk for a number of years, delighting and bewitching in equal measure with releases such as ‘Anointed Queen’ (recorded with Alison O’Donnell of Mellow Candle and United Bible Studies) and the breathtaking ‘The King Must Die’, each demonstrating their mosaic of ‘urban baroque, world folk noir, jazz and chanson music’. With new album ‘Tales of Monsters and Fairies’, part of the splendid Woodford Halse label’s ongoing cassette series, Firefay not only equal and expand upon previous riches, but add whole new dimensions, characters and worlds to their already alluring and unusual universe.

Not just an album but also a storybook of sorts, one that primarily deals with the supernatural (particularly unnatural creatures of varying stripes and descriptions), ‘Tales of Monsters and Fairies’ is an expansively detailed and beautifully adorned piece of work, each song a standalone narrative or unsettling tale in itself. Richly orchestrated with chamber strings, piano, brass, zither, clarinet and Carole Bulewski’s melancholic but spellbinding vocals, there are equal parts, hints and hues of Brel and Piaf as well as Pentangle and Fairport Convention.

Opener ‘Somerault’ is a prime example; a gorgeous slice of sadness, a torch song that both haunts and enchants. ‘Kolumbasplatz’, with its wintry air and strident cello, is effortlessly cinematic, whilst ‘El Dia en que Encuentro al Diablo’ channels François Hardy and 60’s beat, and is drenched in Nouvelle Vague atmosphere. ‘Prison St Michel’s declaratory autoharp and sweeping cello provides a truly stately and doomed lament, whilst the band’s take on murder ballad ‘Long Lankin’ is a dark joy, a jazz inflected jewel of acid folk. ‘Night Spell’s shadowy chamber folk is propelled by funereal drums, its tension and drama ably signalled by every nuance of piano and woodwind, conjuring up dark alleyways and deep regrets. ‘House on the Strand’ offers a similar, spooked ghost story of a song, wrapped in a tapestry of foreboding strings and chanson piano. The exquisite ‘Victoria Dines Alone’ is both defiant and wounded, a tale of loneliness and eccentricity that is profoundly affecting. An album highlight, it reflects all that is special about Firefay, showcasing their significant emotional heft as well as the careful crafting that allows each instrument to not just provide backing, but to tell the song’s story; every note is lyrical. Finale ‘Pesach Dance’ begins tentatively with brushed cymbals, weeping woodwind and pensive finger picking, before erupting into an electrifying Klezmer stomp, fuzz guitars and wild clarinet whirling breathlessly, as the beat becomes faster and more dervish like, driving ever onwards.

Firefay have already established their place as one of the most thrilling and inventive contemporary folk bands; with ‘Tales of Monsters and Fairies’ they stake their claim to psych royalty. As likely to appeal to those adore The Left Banke and Procol Harum as they are to aficionados of Sandy Denny or Steeleye Span, as well as lovers of dark cabaret and chanson, Firefay are the inclusive and outward looking troubadours we need for these troubled times. When the weather is cold, the nights dark and lockdown is upon us, why not delve into some tales of monsters and fairies?

Available from Bandcamp on cassette and download from February 2021

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