Pronghorn celebrate 30 years of Cowpunk with their Glorious Twelfth (album).
Release Date: 2nd September 2022
Label: Lunaria Records
Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital
2022 is Pronghorn’s 30th anniversary year. Not that the coming of age is any sort of indication that they’re intending to compromise or slow down at all. No, not a bit of it – the band’s Glorious Twelfth album, Welcome to Pronghorn Country finds Pronghorn in fine form, with ten tracks (thirteen, if you select the CD or digital versions) of frantic cowpunk, that are guaranteed to leave even the most jaded listener breathless and gasping for more.
Formed in Bournemouth in 1992 from the remnants of three earlier bands, Pronghorn have been through many lineup changes, but with founder members – drummer Toni Viagra and vocalist/banjo practitioner Lamma as constant pillars throughout. They define their signature ‘cowpunk’ sound as a fusion of country, punk, metal and psychobilly, they’ve built their formidable reputation on their ability to play hard and fast and they’re probably the definitive, consummate festival band. Indeed, over the years, they’ve played at just about every major UK festival and they even host their own bash – Endorse it in Dorset, which took place this year in July in the wonderful surroundings of Cerne Abbas.
The band’s current lineup is: Lamma on banjo and vocals, Steve Gun on guitar and vocals, Ffi on fiddle and accordion, Russie Mike on bass, Toni Viagra on drums and Joe Mackintosh on fiddle, mandolin and vocals. For Welcome to Pronghorn Country, they’re also joined by their mate Andy Law who brought along his washboard to add to the shuffling beat that drives just about every one of the album’s songs along like an express train. Pronghorn are, first and foremost, live performers. Indeed, as the new album’s press release remarks: “If you have ever found yourself at a Pronghorn gig, then you will probably carry a scar or two from the magnetic pull of the inevitable mosh pit that erupts right from the first beat. The energy of the band is infectious and carries with it many a health warning – you will come away battered and bruised, but with a wide grin on your face.” And, having just spent an hour or so in the company of Welcome to Pronghorn Country, I can quite believe all that to be true.
But none of that build-up tells quite the full story. Yes, Welcome To Pronghorn Country is packed with energy, but it’s also packed with tight, top-class musicianship, tuneful vocals, well-chosen material and, best of all, an overwhelming sense of pure enjoyment. Anyone picking up Welcome to Pronghorn Country expecting a mash-up of The Pogues will either be disappointed or, as is more likely, delightfully surprised. The band’s own enjoyment shines through on every track but, whilst the sparks fly from the fiddles and the banjo, there’s never any feeling that the music is out of control – restraint is, perhaps an odd word to apply to such joyous music, but restraint is certainly exercised in all the right places.
The wonderfully titled Psycho Ceilidh – the album’s lead single – gets the album off to a great start. Bass and drums provide the rock-solid, never over-elaborate, foundation that is a strong feature throughout the album and the vocals are gritty, but it’s the banjo and fiddle that makes the song whizz and fizz and which set the expectations for what’s to come.
As the song’s name suggests, Spud Face has an Irish feel to it but, like many of the other tracks on the album, bluegrass isn’t far beneath the surface, and the eclectic mix of cultures is completed by Lamma’s west-country brogue, as, in the role of a rural bumpkin, he orders us to “Get offa moi land, Drink up quick!” And there’s no let-up in pace as Ffi and Joe battle each other on their fiddles in the breathless Reuben’s Train, before things do slow down slightly, albeit only to express speed for the accordion and mandolin ballad, Dead Wood. The song’s lyrics offer advice relating to the avoidance of unnecessary burdens and the minor key and, particularly, Ffi’s accordion, give the whole thing an eastern European feel.
The tune to the ‘darkened love tale,’ Shady Grove will be familiar to many potential listeners as it’s the tune that Fairport Convention commandeered for their epic murder ballad, Matty Groves, back in 1969. Here, Pronghorn start their song with a delicious six-part acapella harmony before they head off into what is the most recognizably folky song on the album. Horsey noises provide the introduction to Jed Jones II, a galloping western story-song about a gunfight in an Arkansas town. It’s utterly authentic, despite the Dorset accents, and Steve Gun adds some stunningly dramatic guitar to complete the picture.
It’s claimed that the hilarious Devil’s Daughter was inspired by “The spaghetti western/ Quentin Tarantino scenes of blood, guts and gaffer tape,” but, in truth, the song seems too light-hearted for such things (except, perhaps, the gaffer tape) to have been too much of an influence. Ffi plays some wonderful accordion and the lyrics set some kind of record in finding the maximum number of rhymes for the word ‘daughter.’ The solid, simple, effective bass and drums are a particular presence in the traditional number, The Cuckoo – “A veritable jig on a plate” as it’s been imaginatively described. Lamma’s banjo takes centre stage during the verses, whilst Ffi’s and Joe’s fiddles go bonkers in between. There’s even a reprise of the Shady Grove tune, and things are beginning to get seriously sweaty.
Gritty vocals, a high-speed drumbeat and rock ‘n’ roll licks find the band ‘channeling their inner Motörhead’ for Dirty Motel Blues. It’s the album’s rockiest track but, despite the aspirational description, it’s as clean and tight as it is down ‘n’ dirty and Ffi’s bluesy fiddle is a veritable cherry on the cake. The wonderful Ghost Train will be the final track on your album, if you opt for the vinyl edition, and it’s probably my favourite track. Like an out-of-control train, it rattles along at superspeed and, once again, Ffi’s and Joe’s fiddles are superb. If Ghost Train isn’t the band’s current live set closer, I’ll bet good money that it soon will be.
But, if, like me, you’re intending to listen to the CD or digital versions of Welcome to Pronghorn Country, then, happily, there’s more fun to come…
Soldier’s Tale is a frantic slice of bluegrass and an irresistible foot tapper. And listen closely to the lyrics – they’re not quite what they seem at first… The excellent Swamp Winch is the album’s only instrumental track and, after a subdued opening from banjo, then fiddle, it develops into a full-band hoedown that evokes vivid mental images of capers in a moonlit barnyard, lubricated by copious volumes of strong cider and moonshine. It’s a track that, as much as any other, defines exactly what Pronghorn are all about.
And that brings us to Bone, the album’s closing track and it’s a slice of subtlety and sophistication unequalled anywhere else on the album. It’s folky and suspense-laden with some of the best fiddle on the album, before it bursts, first, into joyful bluegrass and, then, gets quite spacy. A fantastic tune to close a marvelous, breathless, express train of an album.
I’ll need to lie down and get my breath back now!
Watch the official video to Psycho Ceilidh, the album’s opening track and it’s lead single, here: