Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament - The Violence
"Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do," notes the murderous and opportunistic titular character, played by Vincent Price, in the cult classic horror film Witchfinder General. The film fictionalised the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed "Witchfinder General" who made it his mission to rid East Anglia of unholy (often lonely and widowed) women - and make a tidy profit for doing it. Darren Hayman's motives in choosing Hopkins as the subject of his most recent solo venture are reasonably clear - he was born in Essex, the site of the majority of Hopkins' Witch Trials - but what is surprising is that an album suffused with such spooky subject matter is so accessible.
If Hopkins - and the English Civil War as a whole - seems like an esoteric topic for an album, well, compared to Hayman's last few albums - which have revolved around lidos, dogging and Laika, the pooch Russia shot into space - this one is actually pretty down to Earth. In fact, as the singer himself explains, "The album deals with fear and isolation, the way we use our own terror in times of trouble to lash out at the weak. It’s about how societies persecute otherness and outsiders," which is as contemporary a subject now as it was in the 1600s; history is cyclical and all that.
In a similar history-repeating fashion, The Violence is likely to have as niche appeal as Hefner - Hayman's previous outfit, 'Britain's Biggest Small Band'. It'd be silly to suggest otherwise in regards to a album with a concept like this, but, the thing is: it's an incredibly accessible and accomplished record. Perhaps the latter is unsurprising but the former certainly is.
With the help of the Long Parliament, The Violence is a fairly breezy, pastoral delivery of some often disturbing subject matter. Hayman's vocals are atypically reserved and soft, and the music reflects that, with mandolin, horns and strings filling in the silences between lyrics about King Charles I and Parliamentarian spies, which actually makes things all the more effective than if they were surrounded with melodramatic bombast; in much the same way that Witchfinder General stood out amongst its Hammer Horror brethren for (mostly) steering clear of titillation and Technicolour-enhanced claret, in favour of a measured and all-the-more chilling meditation on the evil that men do.
Since the album is interested in providing as much context for its central subject - delving into the socio-political climate of Cromwellian England - as possible, it can drag a little; the instrumental sections are nice, but pad out an already lengthy album. I'm only nit-picking like this because I'm struggling to come up with much bad to say about The Violence; Hayman has ably adapted himself to writing about historical events as opposed to his usual sardonic, sideways view on modern life, and his storytelling abilities really shine. An unflinching look back on the dark past of Pram Town.