Sunday 4 July 2021

Kill the Wolf/ Matt Berry (2013): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

   having a family barbecue back home one Summer. It must have been 2008, a truly significant year for me. I was due to start my new job, beginning the career I had trained for; a few months before I had experienced a tough break up; I was living alone back in Hampshire and getting to grips with it all. At the barbecue, my brother put on this unusual prog album complete with a rich-voiced narrator overlaying some of the tracks. That voice belonged to comic actor, Matt Berry, and the album was 'Opium'.

I had loved the IT Crowd and it really tickled me that the hilarious 'Reynholm' would suddenly manifest himself onto an experimental prog album in our garden in Kent! The music was oddly infectious and I found myself wanting to hear more when I was back in Hampshire, so I hastily bought a copy of the album on CD. As my interest and love of this album grew, my fascination with Matt did too. I sought out more of his more obscure comedy work, from 'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace' (a parody 80s style hospital drama/ horror series) to 'AD/BC: A Rock Opera' (a comedy musical written by Berry and Richard Ayoade). In addition, I was charmed by his real life, low key and humble persona in interviews-- a far cry from his larger than life characters. 

At a time when I was dealing with a lot of change and solitude, Matt Berry, his music and his comedy was such a welcome comfort. Over the last thirteen years he has been prolific and so has my love for him. He is a self-taught, multi-instrumentalist with a deep affinity for the shadowy side of life, including elements of folk horror. This is an artist who echoes the sounds of the great eras of prog (something that I was introduced to through osmosis growing up). For me, Matt is a constant who never disappoints (a rare thing to find, in any context!) I could easily have picked any of his ten albums for my A-Z (all released with Acid Jazz, including 'Opium' on re-release). Before we begin, may I sing high praises for his latest concept album: 'The Blue Elephant'. I can see myself writing about this one in the future as it is something very special.

'Kill the Wolf' is the third album by Matt Berry (not counting 'Jackpot from 1995 which was self-released and not easy to find). It is an album I have seen played live when Matt Berry has played with his previous band The Maypoles. I have posted about some of my experiences watching Matt play live here and here (where I somehow got added as a link on his Wikipedia page years back!)

As you can see from the album artwork above, the theme and feel of this album is pastoral folk with a creepy edge. Think The Wicker Man with a slightly less horrific ending and you'll get a sense of this fantastic album. In fact, Gather Up, the opening track, has a definite echo of Corn Riggs about it in its harvest-themed lyrics. Cecilia Fage on vocals and recorder also lend this album a witchy feeling that sounds incredible. The recorder is an instrument (pretty much the only one) that I can play a few notes on by ear; how many of us felt the accomplishment of Primary school recorder playing, only to learn before long that the instrument was universally dismissed as an ear-sore? Well, no more! I take great pleasure as a juvenile player, hearing the great recorder in folk music and other experimental genres. When in the hands of a talented musician like Cecilia, it sounds perfect-- simultaneously rustic and haunting. The layering of vocals and chanting on this track sound like an incantation (perhaps to raise something sinister?)

Nevertheless, to break this intensity, we evolve into the merry-making of Devil Inside Me which shows off more of a full band (including a fiddle player to keep with the folky feel of the album). This upbeat track is typical of Berry, lyrically. In moments the lyrics and coolly obscure, open for any number of interpretations; occasionally, it feels like there is a critique being made about the human condition; then other times, you're installed neatly into the fictional world of an isolated village with its goose fair and maypole dancing. Either way, Berry distances himself just enough in his lyrics so that you can make of them what you wish. For me, there's an ongoing exploration of 'otherness' in his songwriting that I take great solace in.

'Witchazel', the album before this one, brought us the prog masterpiece The Pheasant; 'Kill the Wolf' brings us Solstice: nearly ten minutes of instrumental on electric guitar, (James Sedge) on drums, synths, church organ and trombone. And yes, there is an extended guitar solo in case you were wondering.

Though not everyone's cup of mead, it is a joyfully experimental and fitting piece that is composed in a cyclical way. The vocals at the start and end (including Thomas Walsh and Tosh Flood of The Duckworth Lewis Method) ground the track in the world of the album. Mesmerically, we are drawn further into the feeling of being part of a folkloric world.

And then there's October Sun. So simple a melody, yet so utterly spell-binding. There's Berry on the ukulele, mandolin, glockenspiel, vocals and guitars (to name only some) in tandem with a stunning fiddle and violin backdrop, Sedge on drums and Cecilia backing up the vocals. I know that Matt used some of his tunes in 'Toast of London', this being one that appeared a few times with different lyrics. October Sun also plays out in the form of the instrumental, Village Dance a few tracks later, so it was clearly something Berry was happy with. There's something about its melody, alongside the lyrics that feels so melancholic. It's odd though, because this feeling is juxtaposed with something else, more resilient and wonderful. I think this is founded in the drums, the strings and the angelic chorals. As a whole, this song is one that deserves a lot of attention and though in some ways it is the simplest song on the album, there is a lot of beauty in its composition. 

Though other tracks continue the journey through the album's pastoral tapestry and further immerse us in its world, the final track is a stand out that skillfully closes the door on the album. Farewell Summer Sun is that perfect accompaniment to the late sunny days of the year where we are gripping onto the time before we are plunged into the colder, darker season. Cecilia's vocals on this track are stunning as she perfectly captures the yearning for Summer to come to us once again next year as we mourn its passing.

'Kill the Wolf' takes you out of your world and puts you into one that isn't any less perilous, but allows you to breathe in the fear in a rather delicious way.

1. October Sun-- for all the reasons mentioned above, this one is the standout track for me. 

2. Solstice-- I love the confidence of an extended guitar solo on an album released in 2013! This is a great prog instrumental.

3. Farewell Summer Sun-- this song manages to capture a feeling familiar to all of us as we reach those final sunny days of the year.

... I am wanting to escape the present or spark off some creativity. Listening to Matt Berry on the train as I used to travel to Kent and back, through the expanses of countryside, used to be the perfect partner for this album. At the moment, I'm settling for walks through the town or local fields.

' Michael, Peter, Mark and John
Please forgive me for I have done you wrong
I sense evil, I fear it here today
Like a bad dream that never goes away   (October Sun)

... it would be ochre. The album encapsulates the harvest time and changing of season, so I imagine leaves starting to change colour and the sun hitting the trees in its final hurrah of the year. Saying that, the re-release LP is a light green colour, so clearly not all would agree with me!

'Kaleidoscope'/ Kelis (1999)

What is your favourite album beginning with K?

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