Published on 20th April 2022
Spriggan Mist – Isambard the Mechanical Dragon
When Spriggan Mist arrived on stage on the Sunday afternoon of HRH Prog XI in Sheffield, with their ‘steampunk/folk’ clothing and their lead vocalist wearing an antler headdress like some pagan queen of the woods, you could almost hear the unspoken “What on earth have we got here?” from many veteran prog rock fans in the audience. However, by the time their set ended, the vast majority in the audience had been thoroughly entertained and won over by this dynamic, progressive folk rock band of talented musicians and their theatrical show, which enhanced their intricate and flowing music.
Overnight sensations? Far from it. For well over a decade the band have built up a loyal following of ‘Sprigganista’ in the Berkshire area and released several live and studio CDs in that time. Whilst the band personnel have changed several times, not least their lead vocalist, it is since December 2019 – with the arrival of Fay Brotherhood as singer – that the current band line-up has gelled into the formidable unit they are today.
It is therefore timely that the band have just released their latest studio album (their first since 2017), entitled Isambard the Mechanical Dragon. For The Progressive Aspect, it was an ideal opportunity to judge just how the music stands up, independent of their fresh and engaging stage presence. Well, I am pleased to say, from a personal basis, that it stands up very well indeed.
Spriggan Mist consist of the husband-and-wife team of Baz Cilia on bass guitar and vocals and Maxine Cilia on guitar, pipes, whistles and saxophone, together with Neil Wighton on guitar and effects, Colin Garratt on drums, and the aforementioned Fay Brotherhood on lead vocals. Together they create a fascinating and quite unique amalgam of prog, folk and rock. Isambard the Mechanical Dragon does a fine job in showcasing their diverse range of styles over eight newly recorded tracks, along with a couple of bonus tracks of older material re-recorded with the current line-up.
The album starts powerfully with the title track, which sums up their musical style completely. Beginning with some lovely, energetic twin guitar work from Neil and Maxine, with a soaring, chiming and melodic motif, and Baz’s driving bass and Colin’s solid drum rhythms. Fay’s confident, enchanting and dramatic vocals enter and recount the dark tale of a steampunk dragon fairground attraction that comes to life and torches the fairground, before disappearing into the skies, never to be seen again. The interplay of the guitars is full of proggy invention, Neil delivering an epic solo at the end, very reminiscent of the feel of Mostly Autumn at times – it is undoubtedly the album’s highlight.
It’s a hard act to follow, but Remember the Day does a fine job in taking the album in another direction. Neil’s song, starting with atmospheric and yearning Celtic pipe sounds and gentle guitar patterns, soon gains intensity. Fay’s vocals take on an epic, folk rock lilt with pulsating rock guitar riffing over the bass runs to give the mid-tempo rhythm good depth and range, before Maxine’s pipes take us to dreamy, distant realms. Vibrant Celtic prog rock indeed.
Fay’s lovely, melodic folk song Chalk Horses – in honour of those pagan carved horses in the hills of Britain to protect the land – is a refreshing contrast. Her acoustic guitar is thoughtfully supported by the rest of the band. Baz and Colin keep it nice and simple, while Neil and Maxine’s interplay is delightful in this accessible folk rock masterclass.
Don’t be fooled by the atmospheric Eastern-sounding crumhorn at the start, Last Drop of Blood (Sal-ahhar Qatra Demm) is an unapologetically lighter slab of power-pop, written by Baz, about the feared Maltese Corsairs – with their battle cry sung with gusto by Baz (who is of Maltese heritage himself). With its simple New Wave thrust and catchy Tenpole Tudor-like refrain, this is as far from prog as you can get – but it is sure to go down well live, late on a Saturday night. Even ELP had their lighter, more irreverent moments between the epics!
However, Ancestors returns the album to its folk rock roots. Written by Neil, Fay sings lyrics that honour our ancestors and how they shaped our future (and the fact that they were not too dissimilar to us). It has a spritely, swaying character with Maxine’s clarinet joining the strumming guitars and Baz’s rumbling bass, with Neil’s effects pads adding atmosphere before he delivers another well-pitched guitar solo later on.
Old Curiosity Shop is a short, quirky tune, written by Maxine, inspired by a local market stall Quercus’ Magical Emporium of Treasures run by the witch Quercus (John Rivers) – a friend who has followed the band for many years. It has a Caravan-style whimsy, the saxophone adding a certain ‘otherworldliness’ as well.
More mainstream is Sunny Days. Written by Maxine whilst driving through Windsor Great Park on a fine day, but actually inspired by the sad news of someone she knew who had taken their own life. The lyrics – reflecting on how beautiful life can be and to never give up – are sung with emotion by Fay, with touches of Kate Bush-style intonations at times, and the whole song has a positive, uplifting feel throughout, and almost a throwback to the pop of the late sixties. The instrumentation supports the mood, with expressive, sleepy flute and jangly guitars over a delicate rhythm.
The final track returns us to the start, with dark, echoing, prog-metal guitars taking us to The Lair of Isambard. A companion piece to the title track (and not the last time we will encounter him on future albums, according to Baz). Once again, Fay weaves her vocal magic over the narrative, and there is a real proggy feel to the short guitar outro.
The two standalone bonus tracks complete the release. There is a wonderful new version of Spell Maker, remixed by Baz and Maxine’s talented producer son, Aaron. Originally on the last album, 2017’s The Portal, but this time with Fay’s vocals added, along with an updated bass line, it is a robust and charming slice of epic prog folk, about the stages of a witch’s life. This is followed by a stomping live version of Spriggan Dance from last year (originally from their 2010 debut) – a popular show closer, with some exuberant guitar and almost space-rock saxophone at the end.
With Isambard the Mechanical Dragon, Spriggan Mist have produced a highly enjoyable album full of a heady mix of folk, rock, pop and prog elements, which captures their diversity and progressive folk rock spirit. With the vibrant and enthusiastic music of the band, now enhanced by the appealing vocals of Fay Brotherhood, they will hopefully continue to increase their growing fan base in the months to come. I also feel they have even more potential to build on the strong foundations laid by this release, especially if they have the confidence to embrace their prog rock side even more, whilst retaining their pagan folk roots. Put all this together with their undoubted live stagecraft and the future looks very promising at present.
[Note: A spriggan is a malicious, ugly creature from Cornish faerie folklore who guards treasure in ancient ruins and sacred sites. Their enchanted mist is to be avoided at all costs!]
01. Isambard the Mechanical Dragon (8:09)
02. Remember the Day (5:37)
03. Chalk Horse (4:39)
04. Last Drop of Blood (Sal-ahhar Qatra Demm) (3:32)
05. Ancestors (6:06)
06. Old Curiosity Shop (2:50)
07. Sunny Days (4:14)
08. The Lair of Isambard (6:19)
09. Spell Maker (2022 Remix) (7:31)
10. Spriggan Dance (Live 2021) (4:19)
Total Time – 53:16
Fay Brotherhood – Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (track 3)
Maxine Cilia – Guitars, Saxophones, Clarinet, Recorders, Whistles, Crumhorn, Backing Vocals
Baz Cilia – Bass Guitar, Lead Vocals (tracks 4 & 10), Backing Vocals
Neil Wighton – Guitars, Pads
Colin Garratt – Drums
Aaron Cilia – Producer, Recorder, Mixer
Record Label: Independent
Format: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 30th April 2022