Standing inside the ruin of an old castle, it’s easy to feel the weight of history – time weathering the walls, decay and disinterest hanging over the place like a layer of dust. Matt Steady of Leicester doesn’t see things so simply, guitar in hand as he mulls over the worn old stones. “Old John is actually a ruin at the top of Bradgate Park in Leicester,” he tells me. “It’s a funny old place – it was actually built as a ruin (a kind of folly) in 1784.” Old John lends its name to one of the tracks on his latest demo, a four-song selection from his forthcoming Theory of Ruins album. The album’s title refers to a concept that Matt has taken to much in the way an English major might find a taste for Existentialism or Romanticism. He’s told me before that he likes to pore over a stack of books for inspiration, so it’s not surprising that the central theme here would come right out of German architectural literature. The concept of “ruin value,” or designing structures with consideration for how the ruins will look centuries later, dates back past Gottfried Semper in the mid 1800s. “We need to build our lives considering what we will leave behind,” Matt writes. “This is the thread that runs through the album.”
Matt often follows a particular character in his songs, an individual persona who surfaced in early tracks such as “The Roamer.” The final track listing corroborates that he has indeed been tracking this character with a song called “Roamer’s Rest.” Over the first two albums, we are introduced to this wanderer, a vagabond compelled to seek his fortune down highways while struggling with the conflict between freedom’s lure and the call of a stable family home. “Black Dog” and its acoustic demo see this individual running from himself, from the destruction that his mistakes promise to visit upon everything he’s built. Eventually, “as the flames lick higher,” he realizes that he has let his ruin finally catch up to him.
As Steady is fond of doing, he swaps modes between this present-day character and a much older time and place. As we’ve experienced in his other albums with Celtic-inspired tracks like “Romulus and Remus,” Matt excels at finding tangible links between themes in history and in modern life. One track I discussed in the second album was based on an antique social code that governed how commoners and nobles should be segregated in society; this was a perfect complement to that album’s overarching story of the roamer character finding a place for himself in the world. “Old John” from the new demo has no lyrics, so I can’t say specifically what role this track plays thematically, but it’s nonetheless an invigorating step back in time as the pipes instantly transport our imaginations to an ancient Scottish castle. Its ruin value is preserved in the chilling way we feel the ghost of that world, encapsulated in his deep, resonant fiddle playing. Steady changes instrumentation completely about halfway through the track, layering a very modern electric guitar down with a percussion line that keeps the tune intact while dramatically overhauling the ruins into a life-filled structure of his own making.
I will touch briefly on “Heart of a Wolf” as well, although I found it to be the most similar to his past work out of the demo set. It’s certainly the most ground in lyrics, which allows his literary flair another place to flourish. He pairs his vocals impeccably with gentle acoustics and other instrumentation that is flavorful, but allows the lyrics plenty of space to stand on their own. It’s understated compared to the other tracks, but no less well constructed.
Now, ordinarily, the demo for an upcoming album wouldn’t be something I’d want to write about; why not save the hype for the finished product? Steady is the kind of artist whose work begs to have an exception made, however – just see what I had to say for his first album nearly two years ago. After that, I interviewed him to talk about his second release. For the sake of space, I will not recap my opinions of those works; suffice to say that they are fully worth your time if you haven’t engaged with Steady’s music yet. By pulling together disparate elements – traditional folk pipes, the fiddle, and probably about a dozen individual different guitars – he is able to synthesize old British folk music with countless other styles.I encourage you to learn more about the very unique process behind this new and singularly enterprising venture. I’ll get into some of the specifics of his vision for this album when the final release is public, but for now the demo should provide plenty of excitement for true Steady fans.