The Borderland

Michael Doherty's Music Blog, 2023

Hardwicke Circus is a relatively new band based in Carlisle, a city in northern England. They put out their first album in 2021. Titled The Borderland, in part because, hey, their city is near the Scottish border, this album features all original music. The guys talk a bit about their hometown in the liner notes booklet, giving us a sense of where they’re coming from, both in the geographic sense and with regards to their music. It is interesting that in the liner notes they also mention alternative facts (and in fact that is the name of the band’s record label). Was that twisted lizard Kellyanne “Bowling Green Massacre” Conway exported to England, or is it just that whatever illness ails us in the states automatically spreads to other corners of the world? The band is made up of Jonny Foster on lead vocals, rhythm guitar and acoustic guitar; Tom Foster on drums, percussion and vocals; Joe Hurst on bass and vocals; Lewis Bewley-Taylor on piano, organ, synthesizers, harmonium, banjo and vocals; and Jack Pearce on tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and vocals.

The album opens with “Guiding Light,” a song that has a bit of a 1980s flavor to some of the vocal work and the tone. There is something undeniably catchy about this song. “So what I dread/Time spent in my head/I feel cold/Like an empty cemetery.” And near the end there is a cool lead on saxophone. And with that bright energy and talk of a new day, it is the perfect way to start the band’s first album, to announce this band’s presence. And then something about the vocal delivery at the beginning of “No Surrender” reminds me a bit of Billy Bragg. “Listen, respect, take heed/Soon a trial may come/Never would I have felt at home/If the storm had never won.” That is followed by “Lockown.” A whole lot of good music came as a result of, and in response to, the pandemic. “Lockdown” obviously addresses that time in 2020 when venues were closed, and we were all told to stay at home. It was a time of confusion, of fear, when the news was never good. This is a good rock song that begins with drums. “Who’s that knocking at my door?/It’s like we live in 1984.” References to that George Orwell novel abounded here in the states after that illiterate conman bullied and lied his way into office, telling people not to believe what they saw or heard. There is also some fun backing vocal work at certain moments (reminding me of some of the more playful moments from J. Geils Band). “Lockdown, lockdown/Don’t want no virus from you/Lockdown, lockdown/Yeah, you know it’s the truth/Lockdown, lockdown/Oh, baby, don’t you change/Somebody get me out of this place.” This track is a whole lot of fun, one of my personal favorites.

Another of the disc’s highlights is “Walking On Broken Glass.” It opens with these lines: “There’s no two ways about it, there’s no easy way out/Don’t keep it in your head, don’t keep it silent, spit it out/So you tell me your living is easy/You’ve got something to live for.” In the liner notes, the band mentions that the song came as an emotional response to a traumatic incident at Dixon’s Chimney in October of 2019 when a man was left hanging by his ankle after slipping, and ended up dying of hypothermia. Apparently there is a strong sense of community in Carlisle for this to have such an effect on the population. I’m a bit envious of it from my spot in Los Angeles where something like this might not even make the news. Anyway, it is a really good song with a strong hook, feeling like a hit, and was released as a single. I particularly like the work on keys. And the saxophone is an integral element of the song, rather than an additional layer. That is followed by “Carry The Torch,” a slower number, a song of heartache, a song of a breakup. “Baby, baby, wish I knew what went wrong/Wish I knew what went wrong.” I think we’ve all been in that spot at one point or another, and Jonny Foster delivers a passionate vocal performance that drives the song. And of course a good saxophone lead in needed in a song like this, and we get one.

“My Sweet Love” is a sweeter song, with some good work on saxophone. I mentioned hearing a Billy Bragg influence earlier in this album, but in the liner notes regarding this track, Billy Bragg is actually mentioned. And, yes, there is something of him in this song. “So excuse me if I’m out of touch/The clock’s ticking, I see the morning bus/And I got blisters on my feet too.” That’s followed by “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” Systemic racism and police violence are big problems in this country, and this band addresses them in this song. The song is a reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the protests and investigation which followed. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became a slogan of the protestors, as it became known that Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot several times. That shooting was back in 2014, and it was far from the last time such a thing happened. “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” is a good rock song with a punk edge, featuring some excellent work on guitar. That’s followed by “Nowhere Left To Run,” a good and lively rock tune with some catchy elements, particularly that “ooh ooh ooh” vocal part. Then “Ballad Of The Gypsy King” is one of the album’s coolest, strongest tracks. It grabs you right from the start, and has a delicious rhythm. It’s about a boxer named Tyson Fury. I know nothing about this guy, care nothing about boxing, but the song is compelling and completely enjoyable anyway.

“Let’s Make New Mistakes” has my favorite title of the album. The song features a driving beat and synthesizers. “Let’s make it last, let’s make it last/I might not be everything you want me to be/Open up your eyes, you will see/Come tomorrow, it’s a brand new day/Let’s go, honey, let’s make new mistakes.” Indeed! It’s a strange brand of optimism, isn’t it? And it works for me. That’s followed by “A Reason To Believe,” which features another driving beat, music that says keep going, onward, onward, onward. The album then concludes with “The Debatable Land,” the closest thing to a title track on this album, a song about the land where the band is from, a place that is in between. “Am I allowed to love you with an honest face/For the world that you come from is just a wall away.”

The Rebirth of Cool

What if after I had told you 18 months ago that when I set up this blog to write about cool music, cool people and cool things that I would be reviewing an album that at times reminded this writer of New Model Army, Crusty Rockers The Levellers you would of raised an eye brow right!

What if I said they chucked in a load of Boomtown Rats Sax?

Oh and the lead singer has a voice that is somewhere between the geezer from Crash Test Dummies and Gary from Reef, but making Gary sound as smooth as Tony Bennett!

And if you were still following this blog by then – how about an album of songs that jumps right out of the 80’s rock scene and owes as much to Born In the USA Springsteen, Hot House Flowers and The Waterboys as it does to current artists such as Sam Fender, Blossoms, Catfish and the Bottlemen?

You’d thing this new writer was off his not so young head and too many disco biscuits had rattled his brain beyond any kind of understanding of what makes a great album in 2021.

What if I told you that all of the above is true, that Hardwick Circus have released an album that incorporates all of the above and more, so much more that this writer listened to the album 3 times in a row straight and wrote this review straight afterwards.

Trust me – this is all I ask – read on and then go listen to it.

Hardwicke Circus are a 6 piece band from Carlisle – literally the last place in the UK before your Scottish (well nearly) – thats all I know about them – but I’m going to find out more – so lets focus on the album.

The Borderland is an assured debut album as you will hear in many a while, its also one that will surprise you almost at every turn.

Lets get the elephant in the room out of the way first – vocalist and guitarist Jonny has a voice that to say its going to be marmite to a lot of people is putting it lightly – none more so then the opening track Guiding Light – a vocal so deep I’ve not heard since that strange MMM MMM MMM Song by Crash Test Dummies – its a brave opening song and maybe thats the point – you get over that and then your into the album that by the end of it your probably saying he’s the best new vocalist around and has a richness n tone to it that is matched by few others – at its best its part Frank Turner, Joe Strummer and even David Johansen from the New York Dolls. You decide – I know where I sit (now).

But what about the songs – well I’m pleased to say it’s full of stadium filling/gig singalong belters such as recent single Walking on Broken Glass thats a triumphant a tune you’ve heard for a whle, filled with that 80’s style sax – with a hook to die for. Nowhere left to run and Lets make new mistakes are incredibly great pop fused songs that will sit happily next to the best of anything your favourite acts have put out in recent years. You get Tom Petty, 80’s REM and with Lets make new mistakes synths which could make Blossoms pack it all in – its that good.

Hands Up Don’t Shoot may just be the best of the bunch – a song that tackles racism and police brutality head on. Its brave as its catchy and shows depth to the band as well as a social consciousness which is a theme that runs through the whole album.

Lockdown (of course there would be) is a song that sounds like Peter Gabriel wrote it – the 80’s influences are everywhere but in a gritty real way that that made later era Dexy’s so essential.

They even have time to put in a song written about and dedicated to Tyson Fury – The Ballad of the Gypsy King is a Madness, Glam Rock Stomper if played by Peter Buck on Mandolin. When they make a film of Tyson’s life if this isn’t on the soundtrack then there is no justice in the world.

The slower ballads are also really great – Carry the Torch especially which is particulary heartfelt.

Final tracks A reason to Believe and The Debatable Land end the album on a high and The Levellers influence on the The Debabtable Land can’t be avoided but for me its the power and vision of Joe Strummer and The Clash that shines through.

I should really dislike this album – and I’m sure my early 20’s me is sneering even now – but I’m different now and I would be quite upset if I was to miss out hearing this album because I have a feeling it’s going to take the band to another level. As a newish band I can only think of the likes of The Heavy North, Sam Lambeth and maybe a few others that are carrying this type of blues, country, rock n soul off with any type of style. So for me thats just perfect!

Its out now – so do yourself a favour – park your preconceptions at the door and go and have a listen.

Get Ready to ROCK!

This band hail from Carlisle, apparently Hardwicke Circus is the first roundabout in Carlisle, as a the band say, they are the “greatest band you’ve never heard of”, somehow I think that is all about to change with this awesome debut album.

They have already released one single from the album- “Let’s make new mistakes” – which I love and completely agree with the sentiment.

The smooth, dark chocolate vocals of Jonny Foster, entice you into the opening track, “Guiding Light”. With no less than three of the band doing a majestic job on backing vocals, and complimenting the lead vocalist perfectly, leaving you assured you’re in the presence of an accomplished new band who work seamlessly together to produce pure class.

‘Lockdown’ – this is about the band holing up together in a cottage during lockdown to write when their live shows got canned, a tad tongue in cheek narration but nevertheless it is no filler and a great reflection on how this band adapted to ensure they continued on their musical journey when their gigs got cancelled.

The style of ‘Carry the Torch’ is reminiscent for me of Gaslight Anthem both in melody and lyrical style “ I know there’s an ocean between every wave”

If you’re not up and dancing along to the infectious beat of ‘My Sweet Love’ then please check if you’ve still got a pulse!

‘Hands up, Don’t Shoot’ is very Stranglers-esque, personally I like it. ‘The Ballad of the Gypsy King’ is all about Tyson Fury. What story-telling, stylistically I could hear the influence of Shinedown, love the diversity on this album.

The closing track of the album is ‘The Debateable Land’ which has very poignant lyrics, a real call to arms.

Personal stand out tracks: No Surrender, Nowhere Left to Run, Let’s Make New Mistakes (I’m game!), A Reason to Believe

I would love to see this band live, they’ve undoubtedly got an exciting future ahead of them

This is a cracking, feel good album that is completely new and yet lulls you into a sense of familiarity, possibly because of some of the influences that have clearly helped developed their unique style.

I know it’s good when I’m not even halfway through the album, and I’d already added it to my top 10 albums of the year – what a debut, buckle up and enjoy the circus ride! *****

Review by Karen Clayton

Hot Press Magazine 

Full-bodied Cumbrian pub rock is here.

Hardwicke Circus is the first roundabout you hit when you drive into Carlisle, a fitting moniker for a band that is putting the Cumbrian town on the musical map. Fresh-faced veterans of over 700 gigs, they recall 1980s Neil Young – who they’ve supported at London’s Hyde Park. Frontman Jonny Foster blends Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen; the fabulously named Lewis Bewley-Taylor plays every instrument that ever-contained keys; and Andy Phillips expertly blows flute, tenor and baritone saxophones.

‘My Sweet Love’ contains New York Dolls echoes, while ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ possesses The Clash trick of a protest song with an arena style sing-a-long chorus. The Tyson Fury epic, ‘Ballad Of The Gypsies’, calls to mind Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’. Big Country-style synthesizers are rolled out on ‘Let’s Make New Mistakes’ and The Ramones get the Billy Bragg treatment on ‘A Reason To Believe’.

Tom Foster is a full-blooded songsmith, and his outstanding band facilitate all the sounds in his swarming head. The fusion of styles makes the band’s sound unique. The Borderland is going to be quite the spectacle on their upcoming tour which includes ten dates playing prisons. A rock and roll beast of a band.

Maximum Volume 

Hardwicke Circus are not a band i've come across before despite having played over seven hundred gigs, supported both Bob Dylan and Neil Young and made the local ITV news station in Cumbria. They comprise Jonny Foster (lead vocals & guitar), Tom Foster (drums & vocals), Joe Hurst (bass & vocals), Lewis Bewley-Taylor (all keys & vocals), Jack Pearce (all saxes & vocals ). 

This proud Carlisle based band, named after a roundabout in their hometown were due to play the South By Southwest film, interactive media, and music festival in Austin, Texas but due to the covid restrictions they were unable to attend. The band also had 165 gigs cancelled which would be the death knell in any other group, but they took the opportunity to rent a farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales and record their debut album 'The Borderland'. The album opens with `Guiding Light` with its driving drum and bass rhythm section leading us in before Jonny's deep vocals join. The chorus almost has a Simple Minds texture about it. At the midway point there's an interesting guitar solo accompanied by some organ like keys.  We also have a delightful saxophone solo towards the end with some sax tinges throughout the song. I felt that `No Surrender` was a song made for a live occasion. It really seemed to have it all, catchy guitar chords, delicate saxophone tones and harmonic backing harmonies. It even has a break towards the end allowing the audience to repeat “No Surrender” along with the band.

`Lockdown` had a funkier vibe about it with hand tapped percussion. I wasn`t quite sure about the high pitched vocal harmonies but the brass, guitar riffs and keyboard solo more than made up for them. There seemed to be a message of hope in `Walking On Broken Glass` a quite anthemic tune which appeared to inspire a feeling of positivity. Another track that enjoys some delightful saxophone tones, a brief guitar solo and some tambourine tinges.

`Carry The Torch` begins as a stripped back melancholic number about a lost love but grows from acoustic guitar, tapped drum rim, piano keys, and aching vocals to more of an expansive musical gathering with a poignant saxophone solo and underlying piano traces. We return to a more uplifting tune with `My Sweet Love` which almost seems the opposite of the last number with a sort of stirring declaration of devotion.

`Hands Up Don`t Shoot` opens with a riff similar to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” before branching off into a kind of rock oriented protest song against gun crime and probable racist abuse. I really enjoyed the vocals that had a hint of Cumbrian dialect in the delivery, especially the chorus. There was an almost Springsteen grandiloquence about `Nowhere Left To Run` with keys and saxophone almost vying to be heard. Again it`s another light, breezy, pop, funk rock offering.

`The Ballad Of The Gypsy King` is a quite captivating and rousing tribal folk tribute to two time world heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury. We return to a more empowering anthemic rock aria with `Let`s Make New Mistakes` a number that quite races along.

`A Reason To Believe` opened with an early Dexy`s Midnight Runner`s texture and is another quite bombastic composition with all you`d expect and a positive message of hope thrown in for good measure. We end with `The Debatable Land` which is a kind of call to arms musically and has an almost Celtic folky vibe to it. A number that has all it`s roots in the land of their birth.

`The Borderland` is a well thought out, measured, and superbly executed rock album that seems to have its origins in Eighties pop rock with hints of bands like Simple Minds, Deacon Blue, and Big Country. The amount of hard work and time spent on the road has ensured that these guys are no slouches musically. A band that will go down a storm at any festival that would be smart enough to book them.

Rating 8.5 /10

Sophie Brownlee

Prepare to be intrigued. From the off, Jonny Foster’s flat and heavy vocals, akin to JJ Cale with a touch of 10cc, atop a foreboding and gripping keyboard beat, guitar swirling overhead, announce Hardwicke Circus’ laconic, enigmatic sound. The saxophone adds a warm rush in ‘Guiding Light’, the uplifting and flickering opener, crowned with surprising harmonies and a sparse but enveloping mix. It’s almost a shame that it totally steals the show from the rest of the album. 

‘No Surrender’ rocks an indie-folk vibe, while ‘Lockdown’ is busier and choppier, cushioned by low-set vocals and contrasting high replies. It shows off a sassy and fun side with clipped, sugary guitar. This five-piece from Carlisle make no bones about their outsider status on the scene in terms of a low-fi sound and aesthetic. It’s the mythical, wandering edge of The Doors wrapped in the tightness and songwriting skill of The Rolling Stones, glistening with a Big Band feel from the addition of sax and Lewis Bewley-Taylor’s keys. Just take ‘Walking on Broken Glass’, where sax croons, the guitar runs, keys chime and the vocals string it altogether in a summery breeze   a song.

Foster’s vocals deliver a Gallagher-esque laconicism that smacks even more in the sadly stirring love song ‘Carry The Torch’; the chorus fragments in a mirroring of emotions as the guitar echoes the vocal rhythm. An impassioned sax solo with stacks of reverb soars, lingers, and oozes on. There’s innovative and groovy use of layering in the poppy ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’, while ‘Let’s Make New Mistakes is a flowing, warm indie-rock piece full of danger and possibility; the step rhythms and harmonies perfect to make, shake, and make mistakes to. It builds in pace until its rushing, racing, flooding past you, breaking for an Capella second before plunging back into the pulsing embrace. 

Rock solid guitar drives ‘A Reason to Believe’. before Foster breaks out challengingly in closer ‘The Debatable Land’. Keys chime in to lend support, while drums from Foster’s brother, Tom, provide the backbone. The songs do seem to follow a formula - albeit not a bad one - though the rhythms are intoxicating, the delivery moody and begging. Sax struts and swaggers through another great solo. 

Hardwicke Circus deliver on so many fronts, marrying indie, seventies Glam Rock and Jazz; they possess real edge, and they know exactly what they’re about. 

Using Format