Coming from New Zealand to the UK, one thing I quickly became used to was being asked by the person who’d just discovered I was a Kiwi that they had heard New Zealand was like this country was fifty years ago, and was that true? Listening to the debut release from NZ band Grumblewood on UK label Gravity Dream, this was the first thought that came to me, because this is a sound straight from the 1970s. Not just in the music played, but the production too. This could almost be a lost Jethro Tull album, apart from Gav Bromfield being a far better singer than Ian Anderson. But with their use of vintage analogue equipment and production, and the frontman playing a mean flute too, Tull is the obvious comparison to make.
Where Grumblewood really trump Tull, though, is on the bass. Morgan Jones (who also plays bouzouki and harpsichord) plays a bloody mean bass. His nimble and nifty playing is almost constantly what I find myself listening to over any other instrument. It’s one of the few vibes I get that this isn’t a total ‘70s throwback. The funky grooves Jones lays down remind me of some of the more recent sounds to have come out of Wellington, and that have often come together in the Fly My Pretties collective. Bands like The Black Seeds, Fat Freddy’s Drop and The Phoenix Foundation. Coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, Bromfield’s vocals often remind me of Chris Cornell and Blaze Bailey.
My Fair Lady provides a wonderfully atmospheric opening number, with the sounds of waves, gulls and thunder, overlaid by some bluesy guitar. Up until almost the second it’s almost sounding more like The Doors, until the folk comes jigging in. The juggling of the blues and folk passages is incredibly well done, and My Fair Lady makes full use of its seven-and-a-half minutes to show off the various facets that make up the sound of Grumblewood on this album. And yet, it’s possibly the least impressive song on the album – although I love the sea shanty passage that comes near the end. Picturesque Postcard has the most beautiful and delicate introduction, and remains a very pretty song, apart from the bridge where it completely rocks out. And wow, does that make an impact. There are similar moments throughout the album. For example, Castaway is nowhere near my favourite song, but has two of my favourite passages on the album. It’s that kind of album, where no matter how you think you might feel about any one song, there is always a part that impresses and delights.
After the groovy and funky Fives and Nines (check out that bass again!), one of the absolute highlights of the album for me is The Sheriff Rides Again. As well as being a favourite, it also has some of the most evident moments of the comparisons I made earlier. It initially makes me think of Ian Anderson playing over 2112-era Rush (so, yeah, we’re still fifty years in the past). There’s some lovely crisp drumming from Phil Aldridge, and Jones’ bass is laying down the groove. The mood changes to one that reminds me of another ‘70s band, but this time it’s one of closer geographic origin – New Zealand’s own Dragon. At least, for that brief two album period on Vertigo when they played prog, before disappearing across the ditch to play pop (and had far greater success for doing so). Oh, and with an Audioslave-era Chris Cornell singing.
I can only imagine how entertaining Grumblewood must be to see play live. With mandolin and banjo played beautifully by Salvatore Richichi, along with the more usual guitar, there’s a whole load of folk feel that could so easily sound contrived, but it never does. I find myself constantly imagining how the band might perform the songs. And in a way, Stories of Strangers feels almost live anyway. In these days of Pro-tools and perfect production, the ‘70s effect of having been recorded analogue directly to tape gives the whole album a warm and natural fuzziness. Ok, maybe I exaggerate with the fuzziness – but the sound is noticeably different from the majority of what you hear these days, and it’s just really neat.
Although there’s not a single song I don’t like, it does strike me that my favourites tend to occur on the second half. There’s the aforementioned The Sheriff Rides Again, of course. But there’s also the magnificent The Minstrel, which at eight minutes is the longest track here. Like much of the album, there’s a real jazzy feel to much of the groove of The Minstrel. But just as the similarly lengthy opening number manages to seamlessly traverse rock and folk passages, The Minstrel manages to pack a few changes of its own. The final minutes are some of the heaviest of the album, sounding closer to rhythm and blues than folk, before pulling back to a beautiful and quiet finish. The title track is another favourite of mine, and provides a perfect closing number to a surpassingly eclectic, yet cohesive, album. If Blaze Bailey-era Iron Maiden were a folk band, this is what they’d sound like. Honestly, this feels to me The X Factor: Unplugged. There’s the galloping Maiden riffs and rhythms, and the vocals are uncannily close to Bailey at times.
Altogether this is a fantastic album. I’m generally not a fan of bands who play a retro style of music, but Grumblewood do it with such panache and style, and dedication to authenticity, that it’s hard not to get swept up into their obvious enjoyment in playing. It helps, I think, that folk is somewhat timeless, so it doesn’t sound so try-hard as the many bands who seem to be attempting to replicate the ‘70s prog stylings of bands such as Yes and Genesis. Or maybe it’s because I’m a Kiwi, and bush bands (as folk bands were often known back home) were common entertainment. Coming from Dunedin, I’ll always remember The Pioneer Pog’n’Scroggin Bush Band (often known simply as “The Pogs”), who I suspect still retain the title for NZ’s longest running folk band. I wish Grumblewood every success in taking that record from them.
01. My Fair Lady (7:30)
02. Picturesque Postcard (4:42)
03. Castaways (5:18)
04. Fives & Nines (4:35)
05. The Sheriff Rides (6:02)
06. Ex Memoriam (3:08)
07. The Minstrel (8:00)
08. Stories of Strangers (5:27)
Total Time – 44:42
Gav Bromfield – Lead Vocals, Flute, Acoustic Guitar, Piano
Salvatore Richichi – Guitars, Mandolin, Banjo, Backing Vocals
Morgan Jones – Bass, Harpsichord, Backing Vocals
Phil Aldridge – Drums, Percussion, Backing Vocals
Naomi Middleton – Additional Vocals
Kirsty Campbell – Additional Vocals
Record Label: Gravity Dream
Country of Origin: New Zealand
Date of Release: 6th November 2020