In 1980, with the various Irish bands who have taken the easy road in terms of rock'n'roll fashion, it is easy to overlook the emergence and development of other groups. Scullion are a good example, every bit as committed and interesting as others, yet adopting a form that is at divergence with much of what's going down in pop music at the moment. They have taken the acoustic option, the road sketched by Tim Buckley at times, Tim Hardin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, some of Bowie's early stuff, Morrison's Astral Weeks, John Martyn, Roy Harper, Traffic and so on.
And if the general instrumental lines suggest a more pastoral music, well ok - but it is more than capable of being exceptionally muscular. Both Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran used acoustic guitars as the basis of much of their rock'n'roll, and Mitchell, Armatrading and Martyn have all extended the possibilities of the instrument. Scullion's power in, say, the middle of Tension or Jump, show as much sinew as any current rockers. At the same time it is a more reflective music, and as such marks a departure from their first album. Balance And Control is more balanced and controlled, and more coherent. Whether or not that's entirely a good thing is up to the listener.
The eccentricities have gone, and more significantly the Irish tones and shadings. Where Greg Boland's instrumental Flight Of The Pretenders on the first LP was quite unmistakably Irish, his Back At Two is international and jazzy. There are no moments like the sax-and-pipes interplay in The Fruit Smelling Shop.1 But there is, instead an extraordinarily mature and sophisticated, if more mainstream, set of arrangements from both the band and their occasional guests, Tommy Moore, Paul McAteer, Andy Boland and (especially) Jolyon Jackson. It's the old swings and roundabouts equation - you miss the quirks but welcome the coherence, and the evidence of a powerful group identity. The playing and production are superb, but where is the sense shown on the first LP in Philip King's extraordinary I Am Stretched On Your Grave?
Balance And Control is more Sonny Condell's album - he contributes all but three of the songs. As a songwriter obviously he's the most prolific, yet he must exercise restraint in his lyrics... Elsewhere the muse comes home, and with a vengeance. Jump, a fine opener, has already been alluded to, and Avoid My Eyes is a little gem that plays to all the strengths of their acoustic format, and makes the most of its possibilities. Eyelids Into Snow is another, with its touch of Astral Weakness, and the single Tension showed Condell and Scullion right on top of all that's gone down in electro-pop in the last few years. These songs, and Philip King's Fear, are songs that need no parochial apology. They stand on their own, alongside anything you'll hear from abroad. And that goes for the group as well.
A complete and well-realised LP, from the music by Scullion and production by John Martyn, to the artwork on the sleeve, it's an excellent album for WEA-Ireland's inauguration on the stage. It shows not just Scullion, but a whole scene at the threshold of its maturity, and without any by-your-leaves-or, nor forelock-touching to the rest of the world. All it now needs is for the public to provide the last link in the chain.
1 The Fruit Smelling Shop is a track from Scullion, their debut album from 1979.
This review was published in Hot Press of November 1980, so the same month as the album was released.