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Mike BillingtonMike Billington
Album: Imbolc
Label: Epona
Tracks: 15

Mike's a man of many parts: currently member of the duo Corvus, the quintet Radnor and ceilidh band Madcap, but also in his own right a multi-instrumentalist par excellence (primarily wind instruments and guitars) and singer - in which capacity he's just released a solo album, Imbolc. This is a followup to his first solo release, Sol Invictus, which I reviewed here in 2014 and with which it shares some common features. Like its predecessor, its bookending tracks involve sprightly renditions of 16th century dance tunes - the Elizabethan tune All In A Garden Green and a number of pieces from Tielman Susato's 1551 collection Danserye - played on authentic "early" instruments: recorders, crumhorns, dudy (a three-drone bagpipe), side and snare drums and timbrel. And also like its predecessor, the album proudly contrasts traditional material with contemporary song.

Overall, Imbolc (the word refers to the Gaelic traditional festival associated with the first day of spring) is a more consistent offering than the sometimes waywardly eccentric Sol Invictus, and a more assured collection that hangs together better. In one respect, though, Imbolc is a mirror image of the earlier album, in that this time the contemporary compositions occur exclusively in its first half - although to be fair, the final two of these, Ted Edwards' Coalhole Cavalry and Austin John Marshall's Dancing At Whitsun, have long been mistaken for traditional and could be said to form a kind of bridge between the two halves of the disc. The remaining three contemporary songs are well contrasted: Our Love Will Not Decay (from Tir na n'Og's first LP) is affectionately done (and features Leo and Sonny themselves as a bonus), while Knight Of The Road also enjoys the guest presence of its composer (Joe Beard, formerly of The Purple Gang and now one fifth of Radnor). However, the brief vignette Cheap Day Return (from Jethro Tull's Aqualung), might be thought a curiously underwhelming choice for paying tribute to Mike's all-time-favourite rock band.

The traditional songs also meet with varying degrees of success: Searching For Lambs is a highlight, with a beautiful English-pastoral-style string arrangement by Nicola Smalley that sets Mike's oboe into relief, on the other hand, perhaps John Barleycorn feels a touch straight-laced despite the virtues of its simple (guitar, violin and recorder) accompaniment and relaxed, amiable gait - this may be because Mike adopts the tune I find the least interesting (the one most commonly used), and to my mind doesn't really add anything to the innumerable versions of JB on the market. The Old Man And His Wife is sung a cappella, and with due relish. The remaining traditional pieces are done instrumentally - these include the lovely lyrical Trent Water, a spirited brace of Swedish tunes, and Once I Loved A Maiden Fair (on which Maartin Allcock guests). Searching For Lambs also crops up as the central segment of a medley surrounded by tunes of Mike's own and played by Mike on the Bulgarian djura gaida accompanied by Rory Scammell on hurdy-gurdy.

Rory's just one of a host of guest musicians and singers who've been engaged to help Mike out on the album - as well as those already mentioned above, Shelley Rainey sings Dancing At Whitsun very persuasively indeed, while her "Bailey Sisters" colleague Karen Dyson sings with Mike on Searching For Lambs, and Mike Harding does a neat turn on bass harmonica and mandolins on Coalhole Cavalry. It might even be argued - who needs all these guests, when Mike is himself a dab hand on Appalachian dulcimer, bowed psaltery, four different species of recorder and crumhorn, Swedish sackpipe and the humble guitar as well as an assortment of percussion… the inner sleeve photo shows a mere 20 items in his instrumental armoury (maybe deliberately evoking the sleeve of the first ISB album?)!

Altogether, Imbolc is a satisfying set, with plenty of internal and textural variety. Although I find myself inclined to skip the passages of narration-cum-dialogue (taken from the treatise Orchesographie) that punctuate the opening track's delightful dances, the disc is otherwise a candidate for frequent repeat play in a way its predecessor isn't quite - Imbolc seems less wilful and more consciously coordinated, while still retaining a charmingly idiosyncratic quality in its very diversity of musical inspirations.

Oh, and I love Annette Hetherington's phantastic, beautiful cover painting too.

David Kidman