Esoteric Antenna 2021
Uncompromising to the end, if melodically supple, stalwarts of British music scene enter the melee against the chaos of our time.
This band have a lot of stylistic means at their disposal – folk, prog, glam – to sail gracefully into the sunset, yet going with the flow was never Dave Cousins’ forte, and he’s never followed anyone’s agenda bar his own, which is why “Settlement” must not surprise the collective’s aficionado. Only it does, logically and paradoxically at the same time, especially when compared to 2017’s "The Ferryman's Curse" – its much more even, albeit still disquiet, predecessor. The two albums are connected, of course, brewed by the same line-up, but then, there are aural and contextual links to the veterans’ classic works, making their umpteenth studio offering an integral part of the group’s oeuvre.
It’s easy to draw a line between this record’s solemn statement of unity, “We Are Everyone” – segueing into the wordless swirl of “Chorale” – and the previous platter’s “We Have The Power” and further in the past, to “Part Of The Union” from the ’70s, so no wonder John Ford appears here as well, laying down the infectiously philosophical, pellucid “Each Manner Of Man” which he co-wrote, and another ensemble’s alumnus, Blue Weaver, produces the entire enterprise. Yet the whole treatise on present human affairs is set in motion after the album’s title track has unraveled the Biblical wrath – the emotion absent from the troupe’s repertoire since “Grave New World” – where Cousins’ stark acoustic strum and dry delivery contrast the song’s uncompromising stance, until heavy riff and thunderous beat open the floodgates for an anguished battle cry of “We’re nobody’s fools!” and belligerence begins to reign. But once Dave Lambert‘s guitar, Tony Fernandez’s drums and Dave Bainbridge’s organ take the rage to the slider-polished brink of despair, all hard feelings are removed by the fragile, piano-encrusted balladry and orchestral backdrop of “Strange Times” – a romantic rumination on mortality – before the deliberately impassive epic “Judgement Day” bulges with Chas Cronk’s bass and radiates groovy optimism with regards to mankind’s prospects.
With the route to hope established, the lyrical aspect of the artists’ approach will come into play on Lambert’s “The Visit” that passes its minstrel manner to instrumental “Flying Free” which applies the strings-woven filigree to a playful rhythm and lets the ivories shroud “Quicksilver Days” in velvet gloom. The resulting tuneful cycle is focused yet somewhat grim, so the band decided to expand and lighten their scope by adding three bonuses tagged “Off The Beaten Tracks” – prepared during remote sessions for “Settlement” and falling beyond the record’s concept. So in the end, the serious epic “Champion Jack” would be balanced with the breezy “Better Days (Life Is Not A Game)” and translucent “Liberty” – originally planned for Chas’ solo EP but deemed worthy of a collective treatment.
Free and proud, STRAWBS are ostensibly not ready to settle their score yet – and it’s indefinitely great.