This is one of the most thrilling CDs of unaccompanied folk singing I've heard of late. Hex is a three-piece based in the desperately unpromising locale of Kettering (East Midlands): the team comprises Terry and Linda Dix and Ruth Price, and their stock-in-trade is upfront, full-in-yer-face (or should that be in-yer-ear?!) acappella: death-defying resurrections of (mostly, but not exclusively traditional) folk songs which they consider to have been neglected over recent years. Hex convey with total confidence the thrill and immediacy of the experience of raw acappella, with intense and sturdy voices, daring harmonies, true passion and a real care for projecting the essence of their chosen songs. It's probably no coincidence that a number of these are favourites of mine too, and mostly (notwithstanding their relative neglect by latterday folk performers) regarded as staples of the better class of singing session, from what I might term the classier end of the "rousing chorus song" spectrum. (By which I mean Daddy Fox and not The Wild Rover, Wild Goose Shanty not South Australia.) The track list also includes some sacred-harp (King Of Peace), which along with a majestic and powerful version of the stirring Southern Baptist hymn Bright Morning Star is a disc highlight; Hex's supremely bold treatment of Sweep Chimney Sweep (famous from the singing of the Copper Family) surpasses even the mighty Wilsons' rendition, while their Shallow Brown is genuinely refreshing, not only for its expanded text but for its return to the authentic worksong delivery, a welcome antidote to the dragged-out dirge pace we tend to encounter when this shanty is performed. There's also a feeling of the shanty about Hex's rendition of Prickle Holly Bush, with a kind of call-and-response thrust to the rhythm and a more robust tune than the tiresomely jolly one beloved of the strummer brigade. The heartfelt though brief closing Seamen's Hymn was a discovery to me, and I was intrigued by the liner-note's account of its hybrid provenance. Sting's Black Seam, the disc's only contemporary selection, is given a deliberately stark, metrical reading that really brings its darkly sinister message home.
In terms of sheer impact on this listener, I can only compare Hex's CD to the neck-prickling effect of Swan Arcade. It may be no coincidence that the male-female balance of Hex (1:2) is a mirror-image of Swan Arcade (2:1), and fascinatingly, on some of the songs the individual voices' roles within the overall texture and harmonic structure are broadly comparable. Hex, too, sing with a bold sense of purpose that goes beyond mere heavy-duty aural onslaught - but I mustn't labour the comparison, for Hex have a sound and blend that's all their own, with striking contrasts in their individual vocal timbres. Their approach to harmony involves much abundantly creative switching around of parts and lines, but the strength and clarity of the voices and their diction ensures that the song's message is not lost in any dense harmonic fog. This directness of expression is found all too rarely on the current folk scene (there's also the Midlands trio Young No More, whose Three For A Girl CD I reviewed last year, although YNM's performing style, though equally forthright, is generally unison- rather than harmony-based). Not for either trio the carefully worked-out arrangements, the pointed and precisely articulated voicings and clearly-prescribed cultural and harmonic byways of (say) CB&S, Artisan and Cockersdale – fine though these are within their own sphere. There should, I feel, always be a place for Hex's type of performance, though it seems almost old-fashioned (in the sense of unfashionable) in the context of the current vogue for vocal ensemble work that's increasingly clever, ambitious or perfectionist - or pretty. More power to Hex and their defiantly unprettified kind, I say, for they bring back the frisson of discovery of the appeal of the unbridled joy of singing, the unadulterated and untreated sound of the human voice in full flight. It's all too easy for me to wax "hextatic" about their sound, for it's a sound that will waken the dead, not leave them to sleep!