Burning Salt

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Burning Salt


One of the issues which is a perennial worry for me in writing for "Hot Music Live" is how to cover even the most excellent of artists, the ones we should be reporting on, when I see them only a few months after my last review. We all realise & accept that most artists for obvious reasons may well have much the same setlist & lineup from gig to gig & in all honesty "they sounded as great as last time" isn't much of a review to offer you.

In practice, as hopefully my reviews show, this really doesn't happen with the calibre of artists we have around here currently: as anyone kind enough to follow my writing will see, I have repeatedly put myself in such a position yet every time lineups have been tweaked & even more often substantial repertoire changes made.

The Burning Salt gig at the Magic Lantern last night was no exception. When I saw them last in early May, the band playing consisted of singer/writer Hannah Hull on guitar & keyboards, John Parker on his customary double bass plus lead guitarist Bobby Williams. This time it was just Hannah & John so the sound had changed considerably in the arrangements of the songs I had heard before which was most interesting. Equally, the last time they played songs mostly from their latest album "Automatic Lullaby" and their "Dirt" EP, the collection of songs written about staff & inmates at Holloway Prison. This time, although material from both still featured, a significant portion of the set came from their upcoming 19 song (no that's not a typo) album "Close To Home", whose songs reflect Hannah's personal experiences in the way those on 'Dirt' reflected those of others.


Without Bobby's many textures, the songs tended to be stripped right back to their stark, bare bones: which given the equally stark, often haunting, frequently deeply unsettling lyrics, was highly effective.

The songs are unique to the point of being very unconventional & by and large the arrangements were equally unconventional to match.

John, whose bass playing I have loved & admired since I first heard it with Nizlopi, generally played a long way from the folkish roots with huge amounts of jazz & even hip hop stylings he used with that band. He varied his style quite a lot this time to complement Hannah's playing & to suit each song, but it was interesting how relatively high his lines were placed in many arrangements: often rather classical in style, he often adopted the sort of part one might normally expect from a ‘cello (John's bow got deployed quite a bit during the evening). Not that that meant he didn't play the odd Mingus type part when he felt it was appropriate.

I was struggling to adequately describe Hannah's vocal range & was rather tentatively going for "contralto" so I asked her: she revealed that there is a big cross over with a tenor range & that helped me: it is most strange but at times the lowest element in some arrangements came across as a (female) voice…. Which isn't terribly conventional is it?

Her playing of both instruments tends to be rather spectral to suit the tone (though on one of the more energetic numbers she switched from delicate picking to enthusiastic strumming) but on one of the most catching of the new numbers (one picked out by several people at the break), her piano playing had Bach like qualities I thought: though I bow to John who went for Debussy.

As with all her past songs (with the possible exception of "Superstitious Woman"), Hannah's lyrics can be melancholic at their lightest and can tell grim (genuine) stories at the other end of the spectrum: which, as I said last time, is in stark contrast to her buoyant & good humoured demeanour between them. It is probably a yin & yang thing.. Her performances are intense but that it is in the pursuit of emotional honesty: I found it illuminating that in conversation with her, she cited Patti Smith, another artist who would not dream of delivering work in any other way.


I for one am really looking forwards to "Close To Home" next Spring & hopefully Burning Salt will return to Leamington to play a gig promoting that record then.

Thanks too to Paul Otten who kindly gave his time to get the sound for this gig right (believe me with music this exquisite, poor sound could have wrecked the entire effect) and Martin Luckhurst for a vital equipment loan.




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Burning Salt at the Magic Lantern


What an interesting & subtle band Burning Salt are. No wonder they are getting a lot of attention, though like me, much of those recognising their talent find them  hard to pin down stylistically.  They were short listed for the 2019 Folking magazine "Rising Star" award, though I find it hard to think of them as a folk act. Even they don't self identify as such. Hannah Hull, the writer, singer, guitarist & keyboard player in the band, conceded to me that some aspects of some of their earlier material were possibly just about "alt folk". I overheard audience members with the same conundrum talking & I agree that an expressed  Laurie Anderson parallel was interesting: references on their website to P J Harvey Nick Cave & Tom Waits are also helpful pointers, but only for part of the journey as Burning Salt really do possess an most individual sound.

The band, whose name evokes "an act of expulsion, purification or protection" epitomise idiosyncrasy in their approach. That said, I think that it is vitally important to make it clear that I enjoyed it tremendously, as did everyone in the audience, almost all of whom seemed to have questions for the musicians at the end. They are raw, passionate & honest, but far from alienating.

Hannah has a most interesting, unusual & compelling vocal style. She tends to sing slowly, and I have never heard anyone enunciate each sung syllable as she does. Her rich voice is pitched low & I am really grateful to local viola player Katrin Gilbert (of Mechanicals Band fame) for describing it as "like a ‘cello". Her guitar playing, gently finger picked on a Spanish guitar sounds as if it's been beamed in from Elizabethan days. On keyboards, her playing as is enriched by space for reflection as her singing & guitar playing: "spectral" springs to mind.

Electric guitar player Bobby Williams played a Fender Jaguar throughout the set, adding all sorts of textures as needed, most simply adding to the slipperiness of pinning down descriptions of what I was listening to. Often reverb heavy, often with deployment of vibrato, he came across as a classic surf player. Other times he seemed to channel Ry Cooder to excellent effect & at others he coaxed yet more spectral sounds out with just slides to complement Hannah.

The final member present (drummer Daisy Palmer plays on the album but was not in the lineup at the Magic Lantern ) was double bass player John Parker whom I have already reviewed this year as part of the Mechanicals Band and half of Ward & Parker (who are more obviously "folk") You may remember him as half of Nizlopi also. What can one say of the man Hannah refers to as the "inimitable John Parker"? One of the most dynamic of rhythmic bass players, John also constantly offers melody to the bands he plays with: frequently switching between the two like he switches from bow to plucking. Tonight, the interplay between his playing and that of Bobby & Hannah frequently produced three lines of melody interlacing.

The set was based on their two record releases to date: last August's "Dirt" EP and the forthcoming album ‘Automatic Lullaby' which will be launched on 24th May at The Hermon  Chapel in Oswestry. The night also acted as a form of launch itself as it was the day on which new single "Honey"/"Superstitious Woman" was released.


The EP has its roots in Hannah's experiences as a (visual) artist working in the now demolished Holloway Prison and the songs incorporate direct transcriptions from the women incarcerated there or working there. The lyrics are therefore at turns harrowing, stark, mournful & defiant & fit really well with the musical settings.

Generally, melancholia informs Burning Salt's music (which contrasts vividly with the between songs repartee and Hannah, whose singing face is wholly reflective of the lyrics she is singing, yet has a broad smile when not singing) with the very striking exception of "Superstitious Woman" which closed the first set & took me by surprise with its punk ferocity. It's the one you could dance to.

Burning Salt are what might be described as a cult band: once discovered you'll love them & respect them, but getting to know their work is less likely to be easy as they don't fit into any of the neat boxes the mainstream media feel comfortable assigning people to. I hope you'll take a voyage of discovery to them using this review as an embarkation point.

The "Dirt" EP was created during Hannah's residency at Islington Museum as part of the 'Echoes of Holloway Prison' project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Further information: www.echoesofhollowayprison.com

The band  played the EP live at Brixton Prison earlier this week.

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