Kent may never have been one of the UK's prominent Celtic outposts, but you don't need to glimpse that cover art to spot that Matt Dolphin (his real name) takes influence from the traditional folk sounds that image conjures up. As an ex-member of Bedlam Opera (alongside Chris T-T and Sergeant Buzfuz's Joe Murphy) and with a couple of solo releases under his belt already, Dolphin is something of an old hand when it comes to acoustic instruments and songwriting and this too is instantly apparent. New album 'Eighth House' might have its roots buried deep into British folk traditions, but there's an element of discovery to be found here, making this record something of a voyage with a few unexpected twists and turns.
'Barbary Slave' is hardly a title that suggests sweetness and light, and it is indeed a dark acoustic number that builds from scratchy guitar to bellowing vocals and a finally a skirmish of fiddle. It could be that the apparent gravestone on the sleeve is well chosen, yet haunting and harrowing music needn't be dull, if fact this kind of atmosphere can be incredibly powerful and moving. The tone is set from the beginning and track titles such as 'Black Psalm' and 'Patterns & Demons' come as no surprise, the former being a dirge-like lament that talks of dancing at a hangman's ball, whereas the latter is brooding and droning with a heavy, clomping beat that imitates the heavy, pedestrian sound of shackled footsteps. The virtues (or otherwise) of absinthe are discussed on the jazz-speckled and soulful 'Wormwood', as sorrows are drunk away. This mid-album deviation in style is a handy palate-cleanser.
You could hardly call it a mood lightener, but what mild uplift is attained here is soon shot down with the bleak expanses of 'Useless Eater', it's enough to make Nick Cave or Tinderticks proud and its slightly more contemporary sound may appeal to those who like an element of gloom in their record collection. Album closer 'Deptford Shore' acts as something of a light at the end of the tunnel, its reflective nature and refrain of "there will never be enough of this life" suggest that despite all the grievances, it's worth being here after all. So 'Eighth House' may not be the most upbeat or summery release of the year, yet you can feel a genuine sense of passion here, and life isn't all about the good times. If the pitfalls of human existence are to be contemplated, then it's to his credit that Matt Dolphin manages to do so with songs as well crafted as 'Grace Of The Winds' and others; stark, desolate and downcast, yet oddly life-affirming at the same time.