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Maverick Magazine

Offering no apology for their downright outrageous picking in songs certainly not suitable for those of a nervous disposition.

Spending a vast amount of their career in heavy metal, rock and jazz bands the world of acoustic music must surely open their doors and lay on the red carpet for such a band as this who release here their debut album which must surely find itself in the collection or play list of those who appreciate folk music but done in a way which does not follow convention. Consisting of Paul and Sean Holden, this band is one to be reckoned with.

Possibly the best of the nine tracks has to be Worst Nightmare. With its strumming enticing you into their surreal world of Dali-esque scenarios that was actually dedicated to their previous ex-wives, it includes such humour and mentions dreams which I'm sure everyone has encountered at one point or another. Controversially it may be, the politics of For the Cause have to be put aside especially when tracks like this are created. Telling of the thoughts of a 'terrorist', or 'freedom fighter', after he or she has done whatever their cause asks of them, it is quite a haunting song which may seem too much for some to stomach. Instrumentally speaking, it is splendid with Sean's fine singing more than capable of pulling this song off. Before I Walk Away begins quite tamely, but as soon Sean gets into the vocal spirit he hits those high notes which seems to chill me right down to the soles of my shoes. This is one band I wouldn’t like to cross in a dark alleyway, as their efforts seem to be quite murderous but who the hell cares when songs like these are the result of their collaboration?

Despite its relatively short length, this album is one which wipes its feet on common decency and walks over it to the land of darkness and the surreal which I for one cannot stop myself from playing continuously; a treat of an album.

Folk and Roots

Cruel Folk is a Norfolk-based acoustic duo consisting of brothers Sean and Paul Holden. Their musical background, however, is in rock and jazz, Sean having played drums for 25 years (latterly in space-rock band Underground Zero) before 'Seeing The Acoustic Light' back in 2001 after a visit to Cambridge Folk Festival. They call themselves Cruel Folk in a bid to reflect the kind of subject-matter (and life-outlook) with which their self-penned original songs are concerned – the dark, doomy and murderous, tales of dramatic historical escapades and suchlike. Indeed, the cover shot, of a hangman's noose strung over a branch against a cloudy twilight sky, reinforces this; but although Cruel Folk's music is atmospheric with a deep sense of folk tradition it's not always especially dour in nature, and there's a goodly amount of light and shade in the instrumental textures, keenly exploring the tonal possibilities of a host of stringed instruments (a panoply of guitars including an octave 12-string model, as well as mandocello, bouzouki and mandolin).

Initially, it would seem that the Holdens can't really escape the most obvious of comparisons - ie. with Show Of Hands, to which reference point I might also add 70s acid-folk act Forest - but I feel their penchant for the historical (or historio-local) timeframe in narrative arguably brings them closer to the world of Weardale duo Brother Crow, while their generally in-yer-face approach to vocal dynamics (and its occasionally uncomfortable sense of strain on attaining, and maintaining, the high notes) at times seems to stem from the world of rock rather than folk. All those observations notwithstanding, there's some strongly individual songwriting on display here on Cruel Folk's debut CD: persuasive and involving where the story is related from the first-person viewpoint, for Paul and Sean really do get inside their protagonists and their motives and aspirations.

The standout tracks are For The Cause (which examines the actions of a terrorist-cum-freedom-fighter), Before I Walk Away (told from the viewpoint of a farmer in the Northern borders 300 years ago), the gaunt What's Done Is Done (the plight of an 18th century thief) and Cold Blood (which tells of an informer in 18th century Scotland). But other songs are almost equally impressive in depicting the helpless plight of their characters, you'll find as you play the album through for the second or third time. Magic's Almost Gone is a bitter yet tender tale of unrequited love set in a college, whereas in Merrie England a soldier thinks of his home life on the eve of the battle of Towton. The latter is imaginatively scored with whistles and drum tattoos, and the disc's opening salvo Foreign Lands even sports a singalong chorus, while the final song The Greenwood Tree tells its boy-meets-girl story in an enticingly upbeat manner (with Jude Merryweather guesting on backing vocals). Yet here, as on every other song, there's a sting in the tale and we just know there'll be no happy-ever-after ending. Why then should we care if 'several serfs were hideously mutilated in the making of this album', after all?! However, sometimes (as on the closing stages of that latter track) the duo indulge in additional studio 'enhancements', seemingly for dramatic effect, and the occasional touch of over-reverb here or there doesn't distract unduly, but there are instances where the gimmickry can backfire, as on Worst Nightmare - in any case, this song doesn't really quite fit with the rest of the album, being rather student-humour-that-wears-thin in nature and jarring somewhat with the maturity and overall memorability of the remainder of the songs, several of which may well be destined for classic status.

fRoots Magazine

Accomplished debut cd from East Anglian siblings Sean and Paul Holden, whose stock-in-trade is vital original songs with a keen sense of English tradition, self-accompanied on assorted guitars and mandos. Though there's definite kinship with the likes of Show of Hands and Brother Crow, they have a strongly individual voice and the end result almost always impresses.

Spiral Earth

The two moustachioed gentlemen under the spotlight here are Sean and Paul Holden, both of which have lived several musical lifetimes. Sean spent twenty-five years as a heavy-metal and jazz drummer before 'seeing the acoustic light'. And still, with hearing intact, he made inroads to the folk scene via the Cambridge Folk Festival, the mandocello and a desire to sing. Whereas his brother, Paul, also rocked out for years, and apart from only a brief lull, has always had a guitar by his side. These guys have now amassed a serious amount of fine stringed instruments to operate as Cruel Folk and 'Love, Loyalty And Other Lies' was the first fruits of this partnership - there's now an EP as well.

Yes, there is a clue in the duo's name, the pair do tend to be drawn to dark and the devilish with their self-penned songs. There's battles, betrayals, murders, raids and doomed love to keep us entertained and it's all told in a fittingly dramatic fashion. Possessing a healthy dose of rock's strident dynamics - albeit encapsulated in a folk mould - it must be said that Steve Knightley's presence lurks amongst the arrangements. But, fear not, Cruel Folk aren't second rate plagiarists, this is an authentic expression of their own creativity.

The duo really get their teeth into their subject matter, studying motive, actions and outcomes which really adds a rewarding intensity (CSI script writing next fellas!). Take 'What's Done Is Done', as an example, where we're flung back to 18th century London to dissect the old 'honour amongst thieves' adage. At each stage of the main protagonist's journey, from street to gallows, we know exactly how he feels.

The thread is broken when we move off at a tangent for 'Worst Nightmare', a humorous aside about marriage that doesn't sit well in this collection. I prefer their wider vision as with 'The Greenwood Tree' which tells of a love affair that ends in murder and a few hundred years of haunting. With catchy strings and spectral voices this tale has an eeriness that's equal to many a psych-folk classic.

Cruel Folk's album, Love, Loyalty And Other Lies, is different. Paul Holden (guitars) and Sean Holden (vocals, mandocello) have roots in rock and jazz; Sean's interest in the folk tradition was reborn after a visit to the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2001. Well known in the East Anglian region, amongst other appearances, they have performed at Ely, Cambridge and the Milkmaid clubs.

The album cover sets the tone with an empty noose hanging over the branch of a tree against a darkening evening. The notes are illustrated with dead rabbits, hunting dogs and guns from our not too distant past. Cruel Folk explore the darker, less welcoming aspects of our psyche, rejecting the common place folk preoccupation with nonsensical golden ages.

The album is an angry voice. 'In Foreign Lands' mimics the marching song and gives it a deadly thump of an ending. 'Cold Blood' hurls words of menace, words of revenge, collaboration and betrayal. Despair destroys dreams of love in the Anglo Scottish Borders of the seventeenth century, reminding one that our ancestors lived lives that were nasty, brutal and short. In 'What's Done Is Done' a woman betrays her lover to save her neck and stretch his.

A helpless sense of class appears as an intriguing point of view. In 'Magic's Almost Gone,' a college servant falls for an undergraduate, she plays with him, before moving on leaving him branded and bitter. The same feeling of the hapless working man appears in 'Merrie England,' in which a medieval foot soldier is dragged of to make up the numbers in the greatest battle of the Wars of the Roses and suffers at the hands of the professional men at arms.

Whilst love, loyalty and other lies appear in myths and are translated into many folk stories, Cruel Folk remove any redeeming hope from their tales. 'The Greenwood Tree' fittingly ends the album with a traditional story of haunting from the grave; a dark tale told with perceptive lyrics and delightful instrumentals. The album is thought provoking, its stories can be uncomfortable listening maybe, don't look for happy endings; but the music is great and the messages of interest.


The English acoustic folk tradition is alive and well and this is where you'll find it - in the sounds of Cruel Folk. If you want to hear original folk music from the roots of English tradition combining fine vocals wrapped up in a maze of instrumental dexterity then listen to Cruel Folk aka the Holden Brothers.

These guys know exactly what they're doing with folk music. They're giving it a cutting edge and their songs reflect their honed style. They deliver enthralling narrative tales in music (my favourite folk style has always been story-telling songs) and these guys are masters of the art.

'Foreign Lands' is a great example of their skill. It's a classic story-telling song about fighting away from your home and Sean's voice fits the subject and the song to perfection. There's a rousing chorus, sweeping string intricacies from Paul and Sean behind the vocals and cutting lyrics - add them together and you have a classic song. 'Merrie England' is in the same vein but different. It's a softer song but with hidden menace in its cruel lyrics (hence Cruel Folk perhaps?) the haunting instruments blend to create a sound that takes you where you may not want to go - powerful stuff indeed. 'Magic's Almost Gone' is a beautiful song that quite simply gets in your head and will not let go. This time the theme is more personal and they've created one of the darkest love songs I've ever heard. The lyrics are incredibly powerful - give them a serious listen and see if you don't identify with the emotions.

I'm off to Cambridge at the end of the month and I'll definitely be listening to Cruel Folk.

Moving Tone

Cruel Folk certainly lay their cards on the table. It wouldn't take Sherlock Holmes to detect that they have a penchant for the dark side of the folk tradition, long before one actually hears the music. The cover of Love, Loyalty And Other Lies is a picture of a noose hanging from a tree - in the dark, of course. 'Mors Longa, Vita Brevis' is written on the back. Inside the sleeve there is an old black-and-white photograph of dead rabbits suspended from a line, guarded by an unfriendly looking dog. The other old black-and-white photograph portrays a toddler carrying a big gun, with another unfriendly looking dog by his side. There's a more modern photograph of the Norfolk duo making a determined effort to look glum, and finally we are informed that 'several serfs were hideously mutilated in the making of this album.' I think we get the point, lads. This isn't going to be like The Spinners. By the time we get to hear the track Merrie England, it comes as no surprise at all to discover that it is about a massacre.

Cruel Folk are Sean and Paul Holden. Most of the sings are written by the Holdens, but often in the style of traditional ballads. Helpful sleevenotes - a worthy folk tradition in itself - elucidate. Greenwood Tree is typical:

A boy meets girl story, done in the traditional style. So roughly speaking: boy meets girl, boy and girl get it on, girl gets pregnant, boy gets upset, murders her and buries her under a tree. She then comes back and spends the next few hundred years haunting any lovers foolish enough to come near the tree. We wanted something a little more upbeat, and this is the result. True, it all ends badly, but hey, that’s what we do.'

Sean's instrument of choice is the mandocello, while Paul plays a variety of guitars. The album is thankfully free of soft-rock drum and bass. The sleeve tells us of former heavy metal drummer Sean 'seeing the acoustic light' during 'his first trip to the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2001, and in particular his first experience of a mandocello, which can of course have no better advertisement than Steve Knightley'. This 'proved proved to be a life-changing experience, rekindling a long-latent interest that had first been stirred by Martin Carthy and Roy Harper many years before'.

Indeed, Show of Hands is the closest musical reference point for Cruel Folk. If you like the sound of that popular duo then you might like this duo too. The guitar-dominated musical texture is rather pleasing, and the production brings this out well, adding plenty of neat little touches to boot. This collection also contains some strong melodies, some thoughtful, witty and sensitive lyrics and evocative vocals, suggesting that Cruel Folk's appeal doesn't rest upon their penchant for gothic gruesomeness as much as they might think.

On My Space they describe themselves a sounding like 'a dark, sword-wielding horseman loitering outside the door of your farmhouse.' If that renders their sound appealing to you, get this. But even if you think you could do without such sounds, thank you very much, you might yet enjoy this album.

Acoustic Magazine

This is traditional English folk ... performed with joy

Fatea Records

Sean and Paul Holden, aka Cruel Folk, hail from Cambridgeshire. As the band name implies, they draw a lot of inspiration from the darker side of life, love, sex, death, normally pretty much in that order. To try and avoid making it to morbid, a number of the songs have a touch of the old gallows humour with 'Worst Nightmare' finding a tongue firmly inserted in side of cheek, rather than a dagger in the heart. The songs show the brutality of war how it dehumanises and becomes about survival and getting home. People don't write songs like these anymore? Cruel Folk do!

Bedford Folk Club

... totally offensive ...