I grew up in a household with a banjo playing dad, and bluegrass playing in the background of family life. When ‘folk’ music started becoming ‘cool’ in about 2008-9 I was excited. It felt like people were beginning to give a moments thought to music that had been ridiculed for decades. Just so you know, I’m not a hooch drinking yokel that writes about music when I get a moment away from my busy day rocking in my chair, shotgun cradled in my lap, filthy white vest on my back, on the porch of my Oxfordshire house. Anyway, it was around this time that a collection of bands began playing ‘folk’ music, and it was beginning to get popular.
Matthew and the Atlas were one of these bands - banjo and all. Since then, there has been a wider move away from this ultra-sentimental, over-romanticised music, towards a cleaner, more indie, sound. Folk music has gone with it, and so have Matthew and the Atlas. The banjo now features very sparingly, and has been replaced with a synth player. The country drums have been replaced with electronic synth beats, mixed with heavy, funky beats on the acoustic drum kit. I was sceptical, because at first I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a tactical move by the band, a jumping on a wagon, and riding a trend. Well… It turns out they’re not. At all. This was one of the best shows I’ve been to for a while.
The sound was massive. The drums thumped like King Kong, the bass made your insides jiggle like a nudged glass of water and Matthew’s voice covered it all with a feeling similar to that derived from a conversation with a wizened grandfather (in a very good way). The opening track from the album Into Gold set the tone for the show, and blew the thought of any folkiness away in a moment. Pale Sun Rose was absolutely brilliant. It’s my favourite song from the new album, Other Rivers.
The band haven’t completely deserted their roots. Their was some banjo, the harmonies were straight out of The Deliverance, and the composition was simple and understandable - a folk staple. In this sense, it’s not a complete desertion of their old self.
The great folk pioneer Cecil Sharp once said something about folk music being a musical form that has, and must continue to, develop and adapt to survive. Looking at Matthew and the Atlas is like watching evolution on speed. They’re a perfect example of where the ‘scene’ is going, and in enacting this process they have written their best music yet.
Here is the old Matthew and the Atlas, to get perspective -