One thing is certain about Maddy Prior: she doesn't set out to make life easy for herself or her audience. Arthur the King
sees her continue the weighty themes of recent solo work. Her post-Steeleye Span solo career has involved more and more complex themes and musical projects, and at the core of this album is a 10-track suite about Arthur, clocking in at a little under 30 minutes. This is perhaps a little much too much to take in one sitting and while certainly an interesting topic (as Prior's sleevenotes testify), Arthur the King
is just a touch unwieldy. Musically though, high points do emerge--Maddy has attempted nothing as rocky as "Tribal Warriors" in years and it suits her while the playing of Troy Donockley and Nick Holland is, as ever, quite superb. After the lengthy opening, the five songs that make up the second half of the album fly by in a relative flash but benefit from their brevity, distilling Prior's unique approach to traditional music into a more manageable form. Maddy Prior's refusal to take the easy route is to be applauded, and while some of her audience may well feel unable to make the journey with her, those who persevere will be rewarded. --Phil Udell
The results of four days of intensive writing and arranging, Arthur The King
marks the first time Nick Holland and Troy Donockley have got the bit between their teeth and proved themselves understanding equals to, rather than just musical accompaniment for, Maddy Prior. Obviously confident in their ability, she's turned over production duties and the melodic composition on a suite of songs dedicated to England's most misunderstood historical figure. Her career neatly benchmarked by Ballads & Carols
, this album always had to be something special to continue the lineage. The truth is that her faith was well placed and that both Holland and Donockley have learned well, pushing Maddy into an album that plays to her strengths whilst nudging the boundaries even further. Where previous lengthy pieces had one or two lesser numbers, this time there's no hint of weakness, hanging together for near 30 minutes. It details Arthur as the defender of a newly vacated Britain against incoming Saxon hordes, neatly avoiding the obvious and going instead for a series of songs which let you get inside Prior's thinking, this history to be experienced. The traditional songs which see the album out redefine a clutch of what were once common currency but, as Maddy correctly surmises, you just don't hear that much any more. So, a haunting "Reynardine" that makes the most of seduction, her voice calling and beguiling, a doom laden "Fanny Blair", all black, dark, forlorn and hopeless, before the mood lifts with "The Lark In The Morning". She's been singing it for years off and on yet here it's elevated to new heights. I haven't stopped playing the track for days, the majesty and power of Troy Donockley's tick-tock guitar line over Nick Holland's all encompassing keyboards build a sheen of English melody for Maddy to deliver one of the vocal high spots of her career. In short, beautiful, and a voice like no other.
© fRoots Magazine all rights reserved -- fRoots, August/September 2001