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Alasdair Roberts - No Earthly Man

No Earthly Man is the third album from Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, following the split of his previous outfit Appendix Out. It's a collection of death ballads, not murder ballads as others have written, culled from the archives of folk song and broadsides of Irish, Scottish and American descent as documented by the work of Child, Laws and Roud. Yet the use of droning timbres and experimental dissonance ensures No Earthly Man doesn't fit too squarely in the genre of folk music.

Roberts is adamant that what he does has nothing to do with the folk scene. His use of collaborators employed on No Earthly Man appears to support this. Will Oldham better know as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy guests on a number of tracks as does erstwhile Belle & Sebastian cellist Isobel Campbell. Despite marshalling the talents of these esteemed collaborators Roberts succeeds in ensuring they do not dominate the proceedings and in fact No Earthly Man sounds distinctly personal.

Roberts doesn't possess a truly remarkable voice, but he carries the melodies well enough to ensure these tales of fratricide, infanticide, shipwreck and accidental murder take centre stage. The weakness of Roberts vocal prowess is in no way a criticism. Sol Invictus, Fire & Ice and most notably Andrew King of the industrial folk scene frequently recontextualise traditional songs in a contemporary setting and they're not renowned for their particularly adept vocal styles. In many ways the vocal shortcomings add a very human dimension to these tales of death.

No Earthly Man opens with the soft keyboard drone of 'Lord Ronald'. As the poisoning ballad slowly unfolds the heavily accented voice of Roberts's is joined by plaintive guitar strum and cello ache. It's followed by 'Molly Bawn' a cautionary tale of night hunting where the protagonist shoots his wife-to-be whom he mistakenly takes for a swan. Roberts employs a Scottish brogue on this one, ably backed by Will Oldham on supporting vocals over guitar and dulcimer chime. Before he is tried the ghost of Molly Bawn grants forgiveness to her beloved. These lengthy dirges are followed by 'The Cruel Mother' which is noteworthy for drawing on both Andy Stewart and Shirley Collins on this tale of infanticide in a setting that recalls the soundtrack to the pagan movie The Wicker Man. 'On the Banks of Red Roses' sees Roberts vocal flanked by the wonderful fiddle score of John McCusker. You can imagine Roberts performing this murder ballad in any folk club across Scotland. Yet just when No Earthly Man seems to be settling into traditional song format the atmosphere is broken by the avant folk of 'The Two Brothers' a fratricide ballad with a wonderful eerie guitar twang, dissonant scraping and cold drone. 'Admiral Cole' and 'Sweet William', once again, opt for a more traditional ensemble feel. The gleeful waltz of 'Admiral Cole' even sounds like an early lyrical ancestor to Nick Cave's 'Weeping Song'. No Earthly Man closes with the funereal 'A Lyke Wake Dirge'. Cello stabs, death rattle percussion and hauntingly massed refrain recount the tale of one souls journey into purgatory. An angel's tinkering harp lays to rest No Earthly Man on this bleak early Christian song.

Drawing as it does from traditional and experimental folk it's clear why No Earthly Man has garnered much attention. No Earthly Man may be flawed but it's an enthralling listen and I'm reliably informed that his previous effort Farewell Sorrow is better still. I'll let you know, as I'll be picking up a copy next time I'm in Monorail Music, my local record store. For more information go to