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Emily Askew Band Emily Askew Band
Album: Alchemy
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 12

Alchemy is an honest and seriously creative exploration of folk and early music, a wide-eyed yet truly knowing reappraisal of the nature of both genres. As Emily herself rightly observes, the further back in time you go, the smaller is the gap between folk music and classical/art music - they both have fascinating and catchy tunes, driving rhythms and enchanting modal melodies. Of course, Emily is brilliantly qualified to steer this kind of reappraisal; coming from a traditional folk family background, she's since become well versed in other musics, obtained a first-class honours degree in Early Music and developed a healthy reputation as a multi-instrumentalist (on this record, recorders, fiddle, vielle, bagpipes, shawm, medieval harp, frame drum, bells). And as if that's not enough, she's a skilled and admirably unaffected singer. Currently she performs folk in the group Alma and The Askew Sisters duo with sister Hazel, as well as working on the Elizabethan Session project and playing in The Dufay Collective, The Artisans and other ensembles playing medieval and renaissance music and for stage productions.

Alchemy is at once classily scholarly and intensely listener-friendly, all without dumbing down or resorting to trendy shock tactics. It brings together the two strands of music, transforming tunes and songs from the medieval and renaissance repertoire into a contemporary folk style by mixing old and new instruments with some electronics, old and new harmonic ideas and percussive rhythms. As Emily says, "throughout this journey we have found that this ancient music has not been dragged into uncomfortable territory, but instead has gently fallen into an exciting new home". There's genuine excitement and a sense of discovery in the playing and the arrangements, and virtually every one of the dozen tracks is differently scored. It helps, of course, that Emily's band comprises the versatile musicians John Dipper (fiddle, viola d'amore, frame drum, riq) and Jamie Roberts (guitar, vocals), with further extensive hand-percussive input from Louise Duggan and Simon Whittaker.

Guest singer James Patterson contributes an additional, crucial vocal part to the 15/16th century secular villancico Pase El Agoa Ma Julieta. That's one of five tracks to feature vocals; all are expertly managed, with highlights being Emily's unruffled account of 13th century troubadour song Amors M'Art (with a lovely new viola d'amore counter-melody by John) and Jamie's lusty rendition of 17th century song Begone Dull Care (which for many listeners is likely to be the most familiar piece on the album). The purely instrumental selections are great fun too, especially the fiddle-and-percussion stomp of the track 8 set, the spicy Play Of Daniel/Giuseppe medley and the full-steam-ahead driven set of Claude Gervaise bransles from the 16th century which opens the disc. There's also a telling moment of chiming repose on the ethereal bell-bedecked arrangement of the 14th century monastic chant O Virgo Splendens.

This disc is impeccably presented and packaged, with an accompanying splendidly informative booklet packed with essential detail; and the recording is first-rate too, with abundant clarity and presence for the myriad of instrumental colours. Alchemy really lives up to its title in the literal sense of "a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination"; yes, there is true magic at work here.

David Kidman