They say that folk music is the new rock and roll. Many would argue it’s also the original rock and roll. If this is the case, there shouldn’t be much doubt that award-winning duo Gilmore & Roberts are one of the young folk bands that have been leading the revival of a genre that has, let’s face it, had the mickey taken out of it in the past (not by me, I hasten to add). But with fourth album Conflict Tourism, could this folk pairing cause some controversy by rolling into rock territory?
This latest offering from Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts sees them focussing on issues of, unsurprisingly given the title, conflict – internally, between people and even with disease. This subject matter allows them to do what they, and all great folk writers, do best – tell great stories. No change there. However, where previous albums (including 2012’s The Innocent Left) have told these tales to a fairly traditional folk soundtrack, on Conflict Tourism they have taken steps into other genres. The addition of Matt Downer (from Jamie Smith’s Mabon), Phil Henry (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin) and James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (bassist with Bonnie Raitt) has also given them a fuller sound.
The album opens with the earworm that is Cecilia. Gilmore’s voice is at its best lifted above the bite of various percussion instruments, guitar and mandolin. This is a song about personal conflict and the internalised struggle of the character’s feelings. It is clever lyrically with plenty of references to battling, bullets and “friendly fire”. It’s about a need to find peace sooner rather than later – “to live you have to walk the wire. The more you wait it just gets higher”. This is the stand-out track for me and the one that I had stuck in my head long after the last song had finished.
With second tune Jack O Lantern, the duo returns to the more celtic-infused sound that they are renowned for. The percussion again adds that modern element, but it is the fiddle, lyrics and Roberts’ vocal style that keep it firmly rooted in folk. Selfish Man, Time Soldiers On and Peter Pan are also the sort of tales that I have come to expect from Gilmore & Roberts – great folk stories intelligently told by young, fresh voices. I also suspect that, like many folk songs, these are best heard performed live. The reeling Peggy Airey, in particular, feels like it would be a great number to have a jig along to in a muddy field.
Where this album really makes fluid the boundaries between folk and other genres is on the country fuelled She Doesn’t Like Silence and the hand clapping and stripped back arrangement of Warmonger. My other favourite track, Stumble On The Seam, successfully puts them on the rock side of folk-rock with its electric guitar and catchy, feisty chorus.
Balance/Imbalance cleverly highlights both of their vocals and is reminiscent of a spine-tingling song sung round a campfire at dusk while the world darkens (“with darkness gaining power and drowning out the light”). It also has a hint of the haunting quality of Fairport Convention’s seminal track Reynardine, which is no bad thing.
Commenting on the theme running through the album, Katriona Gilmore says “conflict is universal – everyone, everywhere, experiences it every day, in its smallest forms”. I would be surprised if this album caused much discord among their traditional folk fan base. Yes, there are encounters with other genres but it is a subtle shift to a more contemporary sound. This is even hinted at by the album cover artwork (more modern portrait than the standard pose with instruments).
With Conflict Tourism Gilmore & Roberts prove they are still our guides through a fresh folk landscape, while taking us on sightseeing trips to other music genres along the way.