Words by Grey Malkin
The Owl Service initially came to attention via a series of mostly self-released EPs throughout 2006 and 2007, each highlighting not only their love of rustic or psychotropic horror films such as Blood On Satan’s Claw and Psychomania, but also their masterful and intuitive ability to capture a psychedelically hued folk rock in the manner of illustrious precedents such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle or Anne Briggs, as well as more outré, acidic types like Caedmon and Mellow Candle (whose vocalist Alison O’Donnell recorded the ‘Fabric of Folk EP alongside The Owl Service). Three albums proper and a multitude of singles and EPs followed, each a linear progression on the previous and tangibly brimming with ideas and concepts, experimentation, cinematic instrumental passages and original and unique takes on traditional ballads. However, by the time of 2016’s majestic ‘His Spear. No Pride. No Friend’, band leader Steven Collins had become weary of what felt like pushing against a closed door of relative indifference and misunderstanding, and sadly called time on The Owl Service. Years passed, and it appeared that Collins had fully devoted his efforts to his other love, that of photography (a book was published), when came the unexpected but welcome news that a new EP would be released in a matter of weeks, and that an album was imminent. The former, ‘Rise Up Rise Up’, is the first utterance of a rejuvenated The Owl Service, and it is truly a delight and a wonder to have them back. Instantly recognisable as their work and creation, but with further bold steps, direction and innovation, ‘Rise Up Rise Up’ ably reminds us of what we almost lost forever.
Reunited with Owl Service stalwarts Diana Collier and Laura Hulse, Collins opens the EP in a brilliantly left of field manner, with a cover of Canterbury legends Caravan’s ‘Asfoteri 25’. Those expecting a volley of electric folk may find themselves doing a double take, however, with its winding, occult organ and otherworldly whispered vocals, this suddenly doesn’t seem so quite a significant diversion. As Collins describes in the sleeve notes ‘Either Paul Giovanni or Gary Carpenter surely heard this, didn’t they?‘ A muscular version of folk standard ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, follows, equal parts Tull or Sabbath as much as Steeleye or Sandy Denny, a take that breathes a whole new alternate life into a much covered ballad – often offered in a twee, pedestrian manner – not here though, this should really be gracing the soundtrack of a Ben Wheatley film, or retrospectively could be imagined as part of musical accompaniment to supernatural cinema or television such as Eye of the Devil or Penda’s Fen. Its dark urgency and creeping power is also a welcome reminder of the stripped back, direct precision of final Owl Service album ‘No Spear.…’, surely an album that is long overdue a serious re-evaluation.
The traditional ‘Dives And Lazarus’ is next, beautifully performed by Diana Collier, who is backed by a glacially frozen drone; both haunted and haunting, the tension bleeds from the gathering, increasing solemnity and stillness, developing into a piece that feels almost sacred. A reconstruction of Anne Briggs’ ‘Sandman’s Song’ provides the basis for ‘Interlude 13’, which continues The Owl Service’s tradition of both gorgeous experimentation and of adding their own particular, impressive stamp upon folk music. A steady acoustic motif provides structure, weaving and webbing amongst buzzing organ hum and processionary percussion, conjuring a delicate yet exhilarating mood piece that evokes a late summer’s evening as the sun begins to sink, casting long, warm shadows. Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson‘s classic ‘Crazy Man Michael’ is given a sympathetic and suitably austere reading, stark organ accompaniment and Laura Hulse’s vocals providing an appropriately spare and bleak atmosphere to a tale of madness and murder.
The EP ends with ‘To the Anti Gallican’, based on a Northumbrian seafaring ballad and set to a melody borrowed from one of Manfred Mann‘s contributions to Up the Junction, it offers a melancholic, hazy coastal buccholia, replete with gentle wah-wah breaks, chiming xylophone and echoed vocals. Without doubt an EP highlight, its beautiful sadness encapsulates the more baroque end of folk, hinting at Nirvana, The Left Banke and ‘Surf’s Up’ era Beach Boys.
A triumph then, and a welcome and satisfying return for one of the UK’s most important folk groups; ‘Rise Up Rise Up’ is an EP that not only reminds us of how essential The Owl Service are, but also finds its rightful place as one of their finest and most crucial releases. A good place to start one’s steps into The Owl Service’s world, or indeed to rejoin their journey, and a gratifying place to linger as the forthcoming album takes shape.
‘Rise Up Rise Up’ was released on the 6th June 2021 and is available as CDr and download from theowlservice.bandcamp.com