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Factory Star – Enter Castle Perilous

Occultation

In The Fall and The Blue Orchids, Martin Bramah founded two of the greatest British groups of the punk and postpunk (or indeed any) period. Any man responsible for Live at the Witch Trials and The Greatest Hit could happily retire in the certainty that they had contributed more to the world by the age of 23 than the rest of us will do in a lifetime. As far as the wider world was concerned, that appeared to be pretty much what he did, apart from the occasional reappearance with either group.

The creative urge isn’t that easily retired though and Bramah resurfaced solo in 2008 with The Battle of Twisted Heel, a collection of timeless acoustic songs that filtered traditional English folk through psychedelic impressionism and austere post-punk minimalism. Every song was a gem and the need to perform them live led to the genesis of Factory Star. After a couple of stalled line-ups, one featuring ex-Fall rhythm brothers the Hanleys and nodding perhaps a little too much to their esteemed history, the latest incarnation of Factory Star were ready to record a single. Given two days’ studio time by Occultation, Bramah seized the opportunity and recorded not the agreed single, but an entire album… after all, many of history’s greatest albums were made in comparable time.

The speed of recording gives the album a direct urgency while maintaining a consistent sonic palette akin to experiencing a live set. The unadorned guitar, bass, drums and organ line-up evokes Nuggets-era garage bands, but Bramah’s voice and subject matter are quintessentially English. From the album title and cover imagery (courtesy of the excellent Jim Donnelly), Enter Castle Perilous is steeped in the England of William Blake, Henry Hunt, Lindsay Anderson and Martin Carthy.

From “Angel Steps”‘ opening garage riff and impressionistic imagery to “Arise Europa”’s rousing call to arms, Enter Castle Perilous is an allegorical journey through decaying mills, grimy back streets and windswept moorland in search of a mythical golden future. Three songs from The Battle of Twisted Heel are reprised, albeit in radically different form, “Stone Tumbling Stream”’s already infectious hook is further enhanced by an uptempo groove and “Black Comic Book”’s melancholic blues waltz now recalls The Animals’ northern English upgrade of trad blues. Stripped of the original banjo accompaniment, the group version of “The Fall of Great Britain” invites dual interpretation even more. Phrases like “My antediluvian nemesis” and “The philistines be upon thee!” could be straight out of Mark Smith’s lexicon – surely no coincidence, but Enter Castle Perilous shows Bramah to be far less of a one trick pony (great though that trick may be).

“When Sleep Won’t Come” is a case in point – a gorgeous love song that could feasibly be covered by anyone from Marc Almond to Cerys Matthews (but most definitely not The Fall). “Arise Europa “could be a long lost Blue Orchids single, in the vein of “The Flood” and “Work,” but simultaneously sounds bang up to date and reminds us just what a distinctive vision Bramah has. Sonically, this is the most honest record I’ve heard for years – not in the contrived ‘roots’ and ‘real music’ sense of The White Stripes and Jools Holland-endorsed retrodullards, but in the sense of an accurate record of a bunch of people playing a bunch of great songs right there in front of you. It epitomises all that was ever great about rock music while rejecting all of the genre’s circus tricks and posturing. Bramah’s unmistakable guitar sound rings across the whole album making you wonder just why nobody else uses such a straight clean sound these days; the reason is actually pretty obvious – they all need the banks of treatment as artificial flavouring for their anaemic ideas. “New Chemical Light” even features a wonderful double tracked minimal guitar solo that harks back to The Fall’s “Various Times,” sending shivers down the spine.

Alongside PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and The Wild Swans[post=wild-swans-coldest-winter text=”The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years”], Enter Castle Perilous forms part of an extraordinary trilogy of 2011 releases that encapsulate the state of Britain, and particularly England, at this point in time. All three are absolutely essential listening.

-Alan Holmes-

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