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Admirals HardAdmirals Hard
Album: Upon A Painted Ocean
Label: Believers Roast
Tracks: 13

Admirals Hard is a group of like-minded friends with a shared taste for the "real-deal" nautical music experience. They were formed in 2002 by Cornishman Andy Carne, who during a spell of exile in London contacted fellow West Country ex-pat musician friends to enlist their help in bringing new life to the music he'd been singing since childhood. Although they were mainly involved in left-field, experimental rock bands, some also had experience in the world of traditional folk music, so were game for the prospect!

Now, after over a decade of roof-raising in the pubs and clubs of London and the south-west, they've got around to making their debut CD. Its repertoire straddles the maritimes, with the emphasis on entertainment, on a selection of well-bedded-in and mostly well-known traditional nautical songs and shanties. Interestingly though, for a group described by Andy as a "sea-shanty band", the most successful tracks to my mind are not the intentionally rousing "bread-and-butter" shanties but those in which the musicians' experimental spirit comes to the fore. For instance, there's an expansive, extended (seven-minute) nu-folk-style treatment of epic ballad Rounding The Horn (aka Gallant Frigate Amphitrite) that would do Owl Service proud, and album closer Martin Said To His Man is given a decidedly mournful minor-mode twist in the setting that proves intensely refreshing in a curious sort of way. The disc's deliberate instrumental interlude (a medley starting with The Random Jig) is superbly niftily dispatched, and indicative of the accomplished and animated standard of the playing (the coda to All For Me Grog is similarly sprightly). In fact, a trifle unusually for an outfit that specialises in performing sea shanties and maritime fare in general, there's a fair amount of instrumentation backing the lively vocals: the settings are often quite prominently guitar-driven, with electric bass support, while more interesting foreground and background colourings are provided by harmonium, hurdy gurdy, melodeon and hammered dulcimer with occasional appearances by mandolin, flute, percussion and electric guitar. There's certainly a spirit of adventure in the group's instrumental arrangements, even though (as in the middle stages of the CD) the insistent guitar rhythm can get a bit monotonous after a while, there's better contrast towards its close.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to maritime music aficionados (who tend to be accustomed to lusty-voiced, unaccompanied shanty crews) that the opening number, Boney Was A Warrior, is the only track performed a cappella - especially surprising in view of the fact that all seven group members are credited with vocals. However, this last point does at least give Admirals Hard a healthy degree of variety and flexibility when it comes to swopping leads and taking verses or call-and-response refrains in turn-and-turn-about fashion, and the group makes good use of the vocal abilities and qualities of the individual singers. Interestingly too, they include a female singer (Sarah Measures) in their complement.

Fittingly, this CD was recorded pretty much live, and the sheer spirit of the ensemble certainly comes across in the infectious good humour of the performances. Mostly it sounds just like a bunch of mates having a good time and carrying the audience along with them. OK, so there's also a nagging suspicion at times that the crew are enjoying themselves a little too much, playing to the gallery for comic effect (Blow The Man Down) or indulging in overly "dramatic" rallentandi (Hullabaloo Belay), all of which may be suitably fun live but can pall on CD when on replay. Also, some of the vocal work errs on the side of traditionally-mummerset-jolly (raised on a diet of the Yetties), as on The Eddystone Light and The Broadside Man. And I guess the Whip Jamboree/Let The Bulgine Run combo overstays its welcome a touch.

Final judgement? Well although with Admirals Hard one never quite feels the force of seven strong voices all singing together, even on the most raucous choruses, this group's blend and sound is (all things considered) both believable and valid as an accessible and at times stimulating alternative to the full-on bluster of a full-strength, full-time shanty-crew. And taking on board the group members' considerable instrumental chops, Admirals Hard certainly have plenty going for them - especially when they get down to refining their repertoire and taking some more chances.

David Kidman