A new Belshazzar’s Feast album? Great! It’s got a Christmas theme? Interesting... I wonder what will be on it?
That certainly encapsulates mine and others’ thoughts when news of ’Frost Bites’ first came out. Renowned for accomplished and amusing live performances, what would the two Pauls do with Christmas material?
Perhaps rightly ’Frost Bites’ contains little in the way of outright comedy/farce that some tracks on previous albums have. Instead, we are treated to a selection of lesser-known festive songs, although why they are not more popular is a mystery to me.
The album opens with ’Cherry Tree Carol/Yuleogy’ the first of which, coincidentally, also appears on Kerfuffle’s Christmas album. This a wonderful tale of Joseph getting in a huff with his betrothed. ’Parson’s Farewell’, as an accompaniment to ’King Herod and the Cock’ struck me as a little strange, so used am I to hearing the tune in sessions but the two fit like the proverbial hand in glove.
Nor was that the only moment of recognition on the album. ’Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’ is familiar to me and to choral singers up and down the land. It is a song that I have learnt to dread for its fiendish difficulty. How wonderful then it was to hear not the Willcocks version so favoured, but a gorgeous waltzy tune, so in step with the words. I want the music for this arrangement right now!
’Masquerade Royal’ invokes the still bleakness of midwinter, which Joseph comes striding out of in ’As Joseph Was A-Walking’. Belshazzar’s Feast certainly know how to pair their tunes and songs together. It is also great to see a mummers’ song make it onto the album, a fantastic meeting of the folk and Christian spheres. Closest to what might be called the ’Belshazzar’ style is ’One Cold Morning in December’, a Walter Pardon song of a besotted man. His lovesick nature is given a slightly mournful quality by Paul Sartin’s superb voice.
This collection requires a slight realignment of what Christmas songs are. Nowhere do we find a Wizzard or Slade inspired glam rock track, and nowhere do we find trace of the over-played staples of ’Ding Dong Merrily’, ’Jingle Bells’ or ’Away in a Manger’. Instead, Belshazzar’s Feast introduce us to the beginnings of a wider Christmas oevre, from the source singers and song collectors, from a December that was not quite so hackneyed and commercial. That’s the Christmas I want, and this is the album I will be playing.