As a critic every few years you stumble upon bands that defy easy categorization. This can happen for any number of reasons. Some bands end up combining so many disparate elements that none of it resembles anything recognizable, other bands – as is the case with folk/rock band Serpentyne – fuse various genres, old and new, so fluently that it becomes increasingly difficult to decide on a fitting descriptor that does the band justice. Serpentyne’s latest effort comprises of contemporary reworkings of British and French folk songs from the 14th and 16th century, along with a handful of original pieces inspired by various historical events or figures. “Myths and Muses” is the band’s second album since forming in 2010, and their best so far.
Coming from London, England, home of any number of established classic rock – and heavy metal bands, Serpentyne combine world music, folk and rock with modern dance beats and uplifting renaissance/medieval music. Describing themselves as “neo-folk-techno-mythic-rock” the band has a bit of everything. The stars of the record are frontwoman Maggie-Beth Sand and multi-instrumentalist Mark Powell. Vocally, Sand is somewhere between Kate Bush, Beck Sian (of UK power metal combo Legend) and German singer Sandra (Enigma). The music combines the stomping power of Swedish folk/rock trio Baskery with the danceable beats of Republica and the folk instrumentation of early The Corrs. All of these elements work in unison, and one never dominates over the other. Serpentyne is contemporary, folky but also traditionally rocking. It’s a delicate balancing act that Serpentyne pulls off gracefully, and that is testament to the individual – and collective talent of everyone involved with the project.
The ethnic instrumentation, a well-known scourge for lesser talented folk/pagan metal bands the world over, is a plus here as it is used to capture the mood and atmosphere for each of the songs. Never does Serpentyne lower itself to base level crowd pandering, and they rather smartly avoid the genre’s limitation of regressing into drinking songs and Cossacks singing. In fact a lot of the band’s music sounds like a more rock oriented take on what Celtic Women did for poppy choral-classical music. ‘Bouddica (Queen Of the Celts)’ sounds heroic whereas ‘Alexandria’ aims for a more majestic and oriental atmospherical setting. ‘Valkyries’ for the lack of a better description is a Republica song with folk singing and – instrumentation. While at first it may seem as if Serpentyne is combining a few unlikely and unrelated genres into a gimmicky mishmash, the equilibrium between each of the components is what makes the record so listenable.
For its subject matter Serpentyne delve into British and European antiquity/mythology. ‘Bouddica (Queen Of the Celts)’ chronicles the battle campaigns of British warrior queen Boudicea, who presided over the Iceni, a Celtic tribe that warred against the Roman Empire. ‘Alexandria’ is about ancient Egypt’s second largest city. ‘Valkyries’ and ‘Freya’s Firedance’ both detail Scandinavian mythology. The latter being a contemporary interpretation of The Scots Brawle. ‘Gaudete’ (Latin for “rejoice”) is a 16th century christmas carol. ‘Hymn to Cynthia’ is a song about Greek goddess of the moon, Artemis. ‘A Rosebud in June’ is a English folk song whose roots date back to 1904, and that previously was covered by Steeleye Span. ‘Pastyme With Good Company’ is an English folk song written by King Henry VIII shortly after his coronation during the 16th century. Included are also two 14th century French folk songs originally written by Guillaume de Machaut with ‘Je Vivre Liement’ (‘I Should Lead a Happy Life’), ‘Douce Dame Jolie’ (‘Beautiful Sweet Lady’). ‘Les Garçons de la Montagne’ (‘The Boys from Montagne’) is an instrumental that was composed by Sand and Powell and comes with lush French bagpipes and smallpipes. A fitting conclusion to a truly epic folk record.
As impressive as “Myths and Muses” is from a musical and productional point of view, it was apparently released independently through the band’s own Serpentyne Music imprint in both physical and digital format. Given the consistent level of quality, the lush instrumentation, and rich production values it remains puzzling why no established label – pop, folk or otherwise – was interested in giving this album the proper backing it deserves. Additionally music videos where shot for ‘Boudicca (Queen Of the Celts)’, ‘Valkyries’ and ‘Freya’s Firedance’ were shot to give the album the required push. As it stands “Myths and Muses” is a record with tons of cross-genre appeal that would feel equally at home at a folk festival, a rennaissance fair or the Pagan/Heidenfest travelling tour extravaganza. It is doubtful whether this genre will ever appeal to the mainstream popular music scene, but within its niche it’s the best record you’ll hear this year.