In the year 2020 possibly the most asked question of musicians by music journalists is the one that has defined this year. That being how has Covid 19 affected them? Have lockdowns inhibited or invigorated the creative process? How on earth do artistes survive when unable to perform live or even get together with bandmates in the same room? The answer comes, however, when you see the sheer volume of great work still being produced. The live streams, online gigs and collabrative works being created. It appears the music business hasn’t let Covid win. They’ve got up, been counted and worked so very hard to remain viable, despite the worst efforts of those who should do better. And in doing so have shone a light of optimism upon a deeply darkened world.
Of all the ‘genres’ who’ve done so much to create this light the world of folk music has yet again led the way. Maybe this comes from centuries of keeping alive culture and history through it’s tradition of story telling in face of often insurmountable challenges. If that is so the world can thank centuries of musicians for creating the template by which modern ‘folkies’ have fought and worked over the last few months to still create. And of those musicians a hard working band from the North West of England have been at the forefront. Merry Hell have worked in new ways, often remotely from each other, using new technologies to constantly create new music. For a band that thrives, and indeed survives, on it’s sheer weight of live work, this period could well have heralded a demise; it is to the collective’s credit that they have been spurred into greater and greater productivity. Singer Virginia Kettle released a solo album earlier this year ( see http://tarkablowpigmusic.com/2020/07/album-review-no-place-like-tomorrow-virginia-kettle/ ) and the band have released via Bandcamp ( https://merryhell.bandcamp.com/ ) new work through out before releasing their latest album ‘Emergency Lullabies.’
Right from the title this new album is very much an album for 2020. Certainly for myself in periods of self-containment music has been integral to surviving lockdowns. Without the calming influence of melody and poetry who’d know how people’s mental health in particular would have suffered. Indeed, music in the Covid world has most certainly acted as an Emergency service. Lullabies sent and received gratefully by many of us who miss the social interaction of standing shoulder to shoulder at gigs, singing songs together. Covid has taken from us an integral part of a music fans life so, whilst not ever replacing the joy of the gig community, the creation and supply of music has reached new importance. And Merry Hell have fulfilled this need with this brilliant new album.
From the opening track, ‘Go Down Fighting’, the band make clear their intentions to battle on in this weird world we find ourselves. The lyrics of this track bring to life all our fears and doubts whilst making it absolutely clear that they are shared concerns. We may fail, we may not get through but if we don’t ‘we’ll go down fighting’ together and united. The tone is set and the album, over the remaining 13 tracks, never lets up in it’s optimism in the good in people, the worthiness in our communities whilst aiming fire at those who’d wish to divide and hold back. From mention of the Covid heroes of ‘our NHS’ in ‘We Are Different, We Are One’ to ‘Sister Atlas’, Virginia Kettle’s hymn to the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, the songs are powerful in their determination to highlight the positives we all must hold onto. We will get out the other side must be our hope and when we do we need to remember those who got us there. Those people are so much more important than those that hindered or did their worst.
The album itself has 14 great songs on it. To pick out favourites is an almost possible task; each listener will find their own highlights. For this reviewer, though, there are a few moments that still shine even brighter. The sheer rock out brilliance of ‘Three Little Lions’ holds its own with some of the great heavier moments of folk rock. Bob Kettle’s beautiful eulogiac ‘Sailor’ , dedicated to an old friend of the band Bob ‘Buck’ Taylor, can only be described as a song anyone could wish to be written for us after our own passing. And ‘Violet’, Virginia’s feminist call to arms, is full of wonderful observation and powerfully provocative meaning giving power to women to rise up and be the leader’s they can and should be. As I say, the album is one continual highlight after wonderous highlight. 14 tracks that will delight, inspire and invigorate the listener.
This is the power of music. The way it can mirror and give sense to our own feelings, hopes, frustrations and desires. Something Merry Hell have not only understood is needed at this time, but have also achieved spectacularly in creating this album. Yes, 2020 has at times been a year of despair and despondancy and that it is totally understandable that people will struggle to make sense of it all. But there is hope and a brighter future ahead of us. A message of optimism the band ends the album with in it’s last and title track ‘Emergency Lullaby (Wasting Time). As author Bob Kettle says in his heartfelt lyrics, ‘Let the young lead the old, All hands to the ark! Unfurl the rainbow! Our life’s in our hands.’ Let us all face the future with a desire to be better, to be kinder and to be more appreciative of those who try to make a difference. And in that ethos we need to laud Merry Hell for going a long way to achieving that better world with this album, ‘Emergency Lullabies.’