New Tradition, the album by the artist, Ben Edge, is not in any sense traditional music, and would therefore not usually find its way onto the Tradfolk website. However, there can be no question that it is inspired by tradition – by the artist’s journey into the age-old customs and rituals of these islands – attempting to make sense of the rolling waves of time that can be traced in every building, every street, every story, and every stone.
Musically, it sits in the world of The Singing Loins, Billy Childish, and the Medway scene from which they sprang. Occasionally abrasive, you can hear traces from Edge’s younger days as a member of the punk/garage band, Thee Spivs. As such, ‘Tell Me Anyway’ puts the listener in mind of a lost Kinks demo, bashed out on an acoustic guitar and forgotten before it made it to the studio floor. That’s not to dismiss the song – it’s a mid-60s pop gem, passionately knocked into existence 55 years after the fact. However, by blending this non-trad style with found sounds, field recordings, and snippets of conversations collected during Edge’s pilgrimage to Britain’s rituals, producer Matthew Shaw (Shirley Collins’s Lodestar Band, and part of The Stone Club team) manages to create a kind of psychogeographical document that isn’t a million miles from the early work of Stick in the Wheel.
Take the song, ‘Centre Point’, as an example. In this history of the London landmark set to music, the monumental building stands like a skyscraping gravestone, detailing lives lived and executions grimly carried out in the locale where its shadow now falls. “The noose long gone, replaced by high rises”, intones the singer as he observes the gentrification and destruction of St Giles. Songs such as this one urge the question, once again, “What is folk music, exactly?” If one of its many purposes is to document the rigs of the time, then this album has that by the bucket load.
Musically, the most interesting song is ‘Mutilated Land’, an off-kilter melody delivered over a plucked guitar and ever-increasing drone. Edge looks around him and wonders what, from his current landscape, will be celebrated in time to come – what mark our creative work might leave on future generations? Towards the end of the song, a field recording of an incantation fades in as the music drifts away, giving it an almost Dark Side of the Moon effect. It’s as close as Edge gets to the world of psych-folk, and you get the sense that he’d feel very much at home if his next journey was into the world of Heron, The Incredible String Band, or Ian A. Anderson.
A similar effect is used on ‘Burryman’s Day’, the most direct reference to Edge’s personal experiences in folk culture. “I stand behind your sacrifice for the good of all living”, he sings, and the religious nature of these rituals, as well as the artist’s wide-eyed amazement as he finds himself overwhelmed by what has essentially hidden in plain sight his whole life, is there for all to hear.
The album is also an exploration of his own pre-folk history, with songs like ‘Who Knows Where I will Be’ and ‘Burn Your Boats and Bridges’ recalling his early days jobbing around his beloved London. The latter, in particular, gives a blow-by-blow account of his decision to commit himself to the art world, and is, in some ways, a little like a broadside ballad. Lyrically, I’m put in mind of a song like ‘The Birmingham Jack of All Trades‘, only a little more personal.
In the end, you might come away from New Tradition wondering where Ben Edge sits in the ever-evolving world of folk culture. Is he a young, all-singing-all-painting version of Doc Rowe, or is he simply an artist completely absorbed by his muse? The answer lies somewhere in-between. Either way, his album is the phrase, “here today, gone tomorrow”, represented in musical form, in the best way possible: fleeting, as we all are, blown by the winds of time.
For more information on Ben Edge, head to benedge.co.uk. New Tradition can be bought on vinyl from Glass Modern Records.