Album/EP Reviews British Energetic Folk Music Folk Rock Modern Arrangement Political Protest Folk

Merry Hell – Emergency Lullabies (review)

Exuberant and rousing with a few inspired sentimental stops, Merry Hell still have a lot to say with their sixth album. 


What can we say of Merry Hell? They are a band often seen on the live circuit with an impressive turnaround of albums (this is their sixth studio outing); you could believe they are the folk world’s equivalent of oxen in a Renaissance painting with their ubiquity, whilst looking incredibly cheerful in their toils. Having listened to their latest offering “Emergency Lullabies” it is safe to say that Merry Hell continue to skillfully and happily pull the yoke of folk rock over our current fertile music scene and show us exactly how they continue to be seen and heard in all quarters.

Consisting of Virginia Kettle (vocals), John Kettle (guitar), Bob Kettle (mandolin), Andrew Kettle (vocals), Lee Goulding (keyboard), Nick Davies (bassist), Neil McCartney (fiddle) and Andy Jones (drummer); Merry Hell have forged a high path in the folk scene through their lack of pretentiousness, an iron-solid bit of songwriting and a kind of national concern and warm embrace contained in their music. The key to their success is surely that their albums are of very subjects that appeal across the political spectrum as, when all is said and done, they don’t try to score political points they just look for the good in people and society through hope, charity and joy. Once this is all mixed up with a well-developed Folk/Punk energy (from their time as the Tansads) we get a loveable, people-orientated band on a mission to cheer up and rally the populace. 

Their new album is an interesting beast as it seems to take a two-pronged approach to entertaining and pulling at the heart-strings. It feels like an album of two dates for your prom night. The first is a cheerful, self-assured protest marcher whose presence does not require added charm (or a megaphone), the other is a downright soppy guy arriving on your doorstep drenched from rain and clutching wild daffodils, slightly broken at the head of the stalk (but he knows how to woo in Latin). This duality, much like 1968’s film “The Odd Couple”, fills the album with charm and allows the magic to happen and spread across the album. This is all well, but what of the tracks?

“Go Down Fighting” has all the hallmarks of a classic Merry Hell Song that works by painting a sombre picture that of dark days to come which “we” can all bust with determination and grit , “bring in all your doubt and all your fears, bring the consternations of your years.” The track reminds of their previous work “We Need Each Other Now” and can be seen as the bread and butter pudding of Merry Hell’s vision and voice . Fighting their war with “peace and love”, their words spin on an active pacifism that has a feeling of a “warm glow” much like fluorescent coral of the sea. Backed with a bouncy, chopping electric guitar, thumping drum and a fine tonic of voices, it is a great opener to the disc.

Another song, similar in inspiring pride but vastly different in execution is “Three Little Lions” (track 3). Virginia Kettle takes the lead on vocals here, delivering a fable-like telling on what seems like England taking on a new identity in the world. Heavy in metaphor and spinning a story of the present and future through strong national iconography we get a spell-like song that calls to all the points on a compass. Complete with epic fantasy level chanting later in the track and some nice fiddle amongst that guitar, it is a song that is asking for fur suits of armour and/or the nations of the United Kingdom combining in a kind of Braveheart style fight against a shadowy opponent. For many listeners there will be some interesting themes to pick through this particular track.

The pinnacle of this particular  theme of national pride has to be attributed to track 7, “Beyond the Call”. A song for the NHS, doctors and nurses who stand “beyond the call” is a kind of celebratory prayer prepared with relatively delicate backing instruments whose rallying power culminates with the community voices added to the song from across the UK. Collected during the lockdown (a challenge to acquire and edit I am sure), it is a rather triumphant and powerful statement of support for our nationally funded health services and the workers therein. On point still at the time of writing (March 2021) it is a big thank you, and almost certainly the defining moment on this album for many. 

This lighter, supportive side of Merry Hell then turns into a kind of stylised classic sentimentalism at different points within the album which give it a wider appeal. Of course being a little sentimental does not make the subject of “Violet” a wallflower by any means,  but this “beautiful recluse” of a song is lined with clever small rhymes, and the track skips like a cheerful grasshopper moving from blade to blade, beat to beat. It is a song celebrating the outspoken, self-assured woman in a vaudeville turn you would expect instead to be about an eccentric gentleman with a penchant for colourful waistcoats, but is more the better for not being. As you listen through several gamboling and witty lyrics later, you feel like you’ve dropped off the suitcases to your room, arrived at the hotel pool bar with a cool mojito in hand and have the moment of peaceful bliss as you take in your surroundings. The yesteryear swagger and nostalgia combined with these combinations of words reveals another part of Merry Hell’s success; they know how to have a jolly laugh with themselves. 

Continuing on this theme we also get “Handsome Sally” and “Younger Than You Were”. We have to say, we are rather partial to these sweeter numbers on this album and are glad for their inclusion. “Handsome Sally” excels in that everything has been dialled back just a little bit. Slightly less flashy and big band,  slightly less bombastic it is the quiet, affecting advice from a lifelong friend to you in your time of need. The guitar leads with a sparser strum, a gentle violin and a drum hiding behind the curtain. It feels like the kind of song that would be shuffling around the top of the charts at Christmas time in the 90s, the familiar solidness of it all burns like a pleasing Boxing |Day turkey curry. Andrew Kettle draws on some fine inspiration beyond his singing in this track and it is a solid contender for track of the album. 

“Younger Than You Were” is more like the rhythmic, spark on a faster, more recognisable Merry Hell track but not any less touching for it.  Guaranteed to get people on the floor during a set, and possibly a place on a folkie’s wedding reception list or engagement party (is that a thing in normal times?) Sounding like a well-loved, well-considered couple who have known each other “since records began” it is celebratory, joyous and incredibly descriptive of the love that grows as the years go on. Many would say this in their relationship to Merry Hell’s music, and that is tricky to argue against.

So, all things considered, we get a strong mix of warmth both towards society and the individuals within from this sixth album by a modern staple of the folk scene. With an output that continues to “spark joy”, as they say, and the sense that there is a ton of ideas yet to come (in arguably “less creatively challenging times”) when the pandemic is a distant memory; we highly recommend the latest album by these rocksters. The whole package has been extremely well put together, sounding rich, deep and somehow (maybe alchemy) as if it was constructed in better circumstances outside of the pandemic. Like a swiss mechanical watch, these reliable, essential and high quality artists continue to shine and tick, providing a valuable, treasured service to many.

To buy the album, we recommend going direct to the artist on their shop here, though it is available in all good stockists.

No ownership of the images exhibited is implied. Please message and I will credit and label your work.

On the way to buying this album, also check out Merry Hell’s 1st January release “When We Meet Again”, another fine articulation of hope and reassurance for these difficult times,

British Political Protest Folk

Merry Hell’s Bloodlines – Album Review

Release Date – 1 November 2016

Merry Hell are certainly putting their hours in. There are a working band with new disc “Bloodlines” coming out within two years since their last album, “The Ghost in Our House” (2015). They are in the middle of an exceptionally busy looking tour schedule too (with dates being filled up to next August).


Consisting of brothers Andrew (vocals), John (guitar) and Bob (mandolin, bouzouki) with Virginia Kettle (vocals), Nick Davies (bass), Lee Goulding (keyboards), Neil McCartney (fiddle), and Andy Jones (drums) they continue their musical odyssey. This time they rally around the artery of politics, a blood system that courses throughout their folk-rock sound both in name and attitude. On previous musical dashes of theirs you can find tracks such as “No Money”, “Old Soldier” and “Pillar Of Society” that do this already by considering politics in one form or another, but unlike previous albums “Bloodlines” particularly feels like it has been conceived as an outlet for collective unrest in British society.

I say “outlet” rather than spear because there is a certain amount of melodic encouragement and lighter relief to Merry Hell’s sound that cushions this jagged edge of direct protest. It is not a folk album widely influenced by the punk tradition after all though much of the feel depends on the songwriter of each song in question. The male Kettles’ songs are slightly brasher with mental images of steel and industry and farm materials, a direct blow to society’s alloy. Virginia’s lyrics seem instead more like a forest canopy with meanings that dance beneath it’s surface. When combined the overall property of gentle defiance emerges as the intermediate. Whether a song fits into one of these, or to the other band-members songwriting credits; the delivery of the lyrics is generally bouncy, accompanied by a toasty warm bass and a grassy lawn fiddle. Despite the material being split into either being heavily action or contemplation, there is an overarching feel of conciliation and trust in others that forms the shale base.


Track List

1. We Need Each Other Now

2. Bloodlines

3. Come On, England!

4. Coming Home Song

5. All the Bright Blossoms

6. When We Are Old

7. Stand Down

8. Sailing Too Close to the Wind

9. Chasing a Bluebird

10. Over the Wall

11. Under the Overkill

12. Man of Few Words

13. Sweet Oblivion



In the opening track, “We need each other now” there is an unambiguous call to action in it’s words, “as borders crumble land and sea, bored with ideology, the skinhead and the refugee, you need each other now.” Along with “Come on England!” it looks to society to act together through the lens of change in response to the barriers of modernity. For the most part it settles on describing political structures and how they affect our personal liberties. If the album had been written later on this year (especially with the US election results) I do wonder if it’s fruit would be less sweet given what feels like a further shift in the political landscape, but these thoughts are largely academic.

“Come on England!” is a great track and does it while talking about “bluebells”, “teacups”, and “dandelions” which in fairness works well to balance with the other darker lyrics about “robbers” and “racists.” Those with a streak of patriotism will really like this song; in the engine that is  “Bloodlines”, “Come on England!” is the protest fuel that burns at the highest grade. This musical direction is a hallmark of Merry Hell’s work and in a way reminds of Show of Hands musical explorations. Merry Hell is more playful and optimistic though, “Bloodlines” is not a savage hound going for the throat, it is a St Bernard taking aid to the parched explorer.


“When we are old” is a delightfully fervent turn from Virginia Kettle taking the reins of main vocals. Swaying like a treasured swing it is a song of commitment and love, possibly a love letter to her husband; it certainly seems likely. Though it might feel that “Bloodlines” has fewer tracks of this type then Merry Hell might ordinarily go for (I do slightly lament the omission of tracks more like “The Baker’s Daughter”) it makes sense that they do not want to dilute their message too much. The album makes up for this with it’s consistent, considered, poetic lyrics such as, “the days empty and wide, we can watch all the seasons unfold, when we are old.” Deeply personal, carefully written and with some nice backing strings it does what it sets out to do. In result it becomes a possible wedding number for a folk fan (not for me, though I’d like to I suspect my other half would prefer the Human League).

“Over the Wall” is a very good song indeed. Full of fun it doesn’t just tell a story, it practically acts it out with props and stage notes. It starts as a serious, pondering reflection (how you might imagine a musical “Man in the Iron Mask”) surrounded by snippets of goth and new romantic influences  as it describes the “festering darkness” of the prison cell. It then gleefully sprints as the rhythm changes and McCartney’s fiddle begins to dance like the eight legs of Sleipnir. Andrew Kettle goes for range with his voice (and succeeds as he has demonstrated many times), the drums rattle and all the elements come together including Virginia Kettle’s urgent dissent in vocal harmony. Like a novel it turns, gathers speed and slows in sadness a dizzying number of times. It is an example of fearless delivery, brave timing choices and a wonderful historical setting making this the stand out track on the album without dispute.

Some other tracks to listen to intently include “Sailing too close to the wind” (whose intro brings salty memory of “The Tide is High”), “Stand Down” (a slight bouzouki blizzard), and the wide-reaching title track of “Bloodlines”, which like much of the band’s music is affecting and dulcet. The track  I did not feel much for was “Chasing the Bluebird.” Though nice in arrangement, and fragile in delivery it struggles to hold my attention with it’s lyrics. A minor niggle on an album that largely delivers with fun and heart (especially on the last track, “Sweet Oblivion”).

In a Few Words..


Quite political it is a human album that will speak to fans and newcomers alike being well produced and as full of anthems as ever.
Generous in spirit Merry Hell deliver an energetic set of tracks with an optimistic view on people and collective power.
If you love politics, a good melody and a thoughtful lyric or two, this album is for you.

If you would like to purchase the album, please go here in the first instance (£12 including postage).