Phew! Where to start to describe this long awaited and quite astounding endeavour?
Perhaps at the beginning? Back in the 1970's when the idea to depict the lives of the three notorious and characterful Martin brothers of South Tynedale was initially conceived by Tyneside poet Keith Armstrong through a performance of poetry and music with an accompanying slide-show.
Or maybe in 2002? The year when Keith approached highly respected north eastern songwriter Gary Miller with a view to updating and developing 'Mad Martins'? The newly expanded project was performed to enthusiastic audiences a number of times but then laid fallow until 2011 when it was once again revived.
No - let us fast forward to late 2017 when, following intermittent progress over the previous six years, the physical manifestation of the project echoed through my hall as it dropped from the letterbox onto the tiled floor. For this is a work as substantial as it's genesis suggests.
On opening the packaging, the lengthy period of anticipation was amply rewarded by a beautifully presented and lavishly illustrated 104 page book designed by Helen Temperley. The book contains lyrics to all the songs, poems and spoken word pieces, with additional inter-linking text and many attractive historical images, including paintings, engravings, sketches, illustrations, and original artwork. My only initial concern was that the contrast between the texts and the illustrated backgrounds could make legibility an issue for those, like me, with less than perfect eyesight. This issue has been acknowledged and I am pleased to say that all lyrics, poems and texts are available via the Mad Martins website.
The three CDs are safely tucked into pouches behind the front and rear hardback covers and the overall approach to the presentation reminds me very much of that taken by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI in their CDs and books on the Alia Vox label and, believe me, there is no higher praise I could bestow.
At the beginning of the set a single song introduces the lives of the three brothers through a prophecy made by their mother, Isabella, who stated on her death bed that her family's name would be known from pole to pole. A verse apiece is dedicated to each son and their achievements providing a taster for the detailed stories to come.
First up is youngest brother William Martin much of whose life was dedicated, following a short military career, to philosophy, invention, experimentation and constant endeavour to disprove Newton's theories. The fundaments of his own scientific beliefs are set out in the rousing song 'God and Air'. His long suffering and 'inoffensive' wife, who seemingly tolerated his dreaming and enthusiasms with little complaint, is also rewarded with a song of her own.
Middle brother, Jonathan, appears to be, if anything, even more of a character who, after a spell at sea, embarked upon a career of non-conformist religious zealotry, which included a plot to assassinate the Bishop of Oxford (which elicits the darkest and most inventive song in the collection - full of threatening percussion, delay lines and atmospherics) and an arson attack on York Minster. He died following 9 years of incarceration in Bedlam Hospital in London.
John Martin's fame has lived on long after the others as a great painter of biblical and historical scenes. Anyone familiar with his magnificent, awe inspiring works (as described perhaps most effectively in 'Searching for the Waters of Oblivion') will, like me, find delight in learning more about the man and his other great passion - engineering.
All three biographies are told through a mixture of Gary's direct yet eloquent songs and Keith Armstrong's prose, poetry and readings from contemporary accounts often underpinned by traditional tunes. The varied style of the songs and their accompaniment, and the content of the lyrics, poetry and readings, when combined with the text and pictures in the book, make for a constantly rewarding and educational experience.
As well as Gary and Keith, other notable vocal contributions come from Mick Tyas and, especially, Marie Tucker, whose beautiful voice makes 'Maria's Testimony' another highlight of the collection. I would have been very happy to have heard more of Marie and hope that some of Gary's future work will include contributions from her.
The instrumental CD, whilst not essential to the telling of the stories, is a worthwhile addition to the set as it gives the opportunity to hear the well played tunes without dialogue overlaid.
In this review I have deliberately not provided a long list of song descriptions, or expanded on the biographies as told through the book and CDs, as I think it is important for those who take the plunge into the brothers' history do so with the same curiosity that I felt when I started my journey through their lives.
As well as those individuals already mentioned, there is a long list of contributors to the project acknowledged in the book and they have all made their mark most effectively. I would, however, single out the producer, engineer and, it would appear, joint driving force behind the enterprise, Iain Petrie whose work has ensured that all the constituent elements, with their varied instrumental and vocal dimensions, coalesce into a satisfying whole.
In conclusion, this is an essential purchase for anyone interested in the cultural and scientific history of the North East of England as well as being a significant addition to the folk canon. Everyone involved should be proud of what they have achieved and I very much hope that the proposed theatrical presentation of Mad Martins comes to fruition.