Tag Archives: Scottish folk

Folk: album review – Bruce MacGregor ‘Road To Tyranny’

A pivotal figure on the Scottish traditional music scene, Bruce MacGregor is renowned both for his work with the award winning Highland fiddle group, Blazin’ Fiddles, as well as presenting BBC Radio Scotland’s folk show, Travelling Folk. 2020 also saw the launch of MacGregor’s book, The Highlander’s Revenge, a collection of fifty compositions telling the story behind each song.

Road To Tyranny is a new solo album from MacGregor, showcasing fourteen original compositions and including a stellar cast of supporting musicians.

MacGregor: “I’m so delighted with the way this album has turned out, each track sounds unique thanks to the amazing musicians who joined me. Anna Massie and Angus Lyon helped with the production and Jenna Reid also from the Blazers helped me with string parts. We were then treated to the musical magic dust that Tim Edey (guitar and box) and Ali Levack (whistles) and Su-a Lee (cello) added. We then added to the swinging rhythm section with Duncan Lyall on bass and Iain Sandilands on percussion. Iain even had to go out and buy a washboard to get the right vibe for the Big Yins! We also added in something a little different for a Scottish fiddle album with Tom Oats on clarinet and Iain Sloan on lap steel guitar giving us a completely different vibe for each set.”

With Road To Tyranny, MacGregor proves you don’t need to delve too far back into history for inspiration to create such evocative compositions. The title track was inspired by a remark from a former president of the Supreme Court over the constitutional implications of the 2020 United Kingdom Internal Market Act, while others have been prompted by a memorable visit to Billy Connolly’s house (‘The Big Yin’s’), an adolescent boy’s sometimes lackadaisical approach to completing household chores (‘Josh’s 2 Secs’) and a celebration of the career of Scottish rugby player, Doddie Weir (‘Doddie’s Dream’).

With its irresistible collection of airs, jigs, strathspeys, reels and marches, as well compositions that MacGregor simply terms “catchy tunes!” as they don’t quite neatly fit into a particular category, Road To Tyranny takes us on a magical journey at the hands of a deft composer, talented fiddler and all-round Scottish music legend.

Released: 15 January 2022

https://www.brucemacgregor.scot/

Folk/electronica: album review – Barry Reid ‘Breathing Space’

A noteworthy figure on the Scottish music scene, Barry Reid has made his presence felt both through membership of bands like the Treacherous Orchestra and Croft No. Five, and also as a studio engineer and producer. Breathing Space, however, is Reid’s debut solo album.

Inspired by the rural landscapes of Ross-Shire and Inverness-Shire and recorded at his own Rose Croft Studio in the Highland village of Muir of Ord, Breathing Space fuses folk and electronica to create ten self-composed instrumental tracks.

Alongside Reid, the album boasts an impressive line-up of guest musicians in Lauren MacColl, Hamish Napier, Laura Wilkie, Innes Watson and Ali Hutton.

“For many years I’ve wanted to make an electronic based album of music that not only reflects myself as a musician but also the places I love to be in, where I find calm amongst all the chaos,” Reid writes in the album sleeve-notes.  

He’s not the first to do this, of course. A number of musicians have been tempted to explore that intersect of folk and electronica and in recent years we’ve been seeing more albums treading this same path. However, both for the sheer wealth of instruments involved (which include acoustic guitar, synthesizers, harmonium, drums, samples, keyboards, percussion and vocal drone as well as fiddle, flute and whistles from the assorted guest musicians) and for the incorporation of mood-setting sounds from the natural landscape, Reid has come up with something that’s both evocative and highly inventive.

Released: 2 March 2022

www.spad.org.uk

Folk: album review – Rachel Newton & Lauren MacColl ‘Heal & Harrow’

Witches have been in the news of late, with Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, issuing a formal apology to those who were executed under Scotland’s sixteenth and seventeenth century witchcraft laws.

Sturgeon’s apology was in response to the ‘Witches of Scotland’ campaign which has sought to obtain an official pardon for those, mainly women, who were persecuted as witches. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft has pulled together a comprehensive database of known prosecutions taking place, between the first execution in 1479 and the final one in 1727, revealing that at least 2,500 people were killed.

It’s not only in the Scottish Parliament where the plight of those persecuted has resonated. Acclaimed Scottish traditional musicians and composers, Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl, have been equally moved by this dark period in Scotland’s history. Collaborating with author and academic, Mairi Kidd, Heal & Harrow is an album of original music, songs and readings drawn from Kidd’s specially-commissioned writing.

Kidd writes in the accompanying booklet: “Heal & Harrow is a dream project for a writer, but a challenging one, too. Choosing ten women from the thousands persecuted for witchcraft was a daunting task, never mind selecting also from the legion of sister who experienced less extreme versions of the same forces.”

The result is a haunting but compelling album that honours the memory of women who fell victim to that lethal combination of misogyny, superstition and paranoia which gave rise to the witch-hunts. Women like Lillias Addie, who is commemorated in the opening track. She was accused of witchcraft after being shopped by a neighbour but died before her trial. Escaping the horror of being burned to death she remains the only person in Scotland that was accused of witchcraft to have a known grave.

Newton’s  harp, stark and slightly other-worldly, and MacColl’s fiddle, brooding and melancholy, are the dominant sounds on the album, providing a beautifully evocative backdrop for Newton’s pure yet fragile-sounding vocal or the duo’s soft, gentle spoken-word interludes.

Sorcery and witchcraft have been a recurring theme in folk for centuries but amidst the melodramatic, cartoon-like portrayals it’s sometimes easy to forget the horrendous human tragedies that resulted from society’s obsession. Heal & Harrow redresses that balance and gives a voice to those so accused. A stunning album.

Released: 4th February 2022

https://www.healandharrow.com/

Folk: album review – Beinn Lee ‘DEÒ’

Formed in 2013, Beinn Lee are a six-piece band from Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Two-and-a-half years in the making, the band’s second album, DEÒ, follows their debut, OSGARRA, released back in 2018.

While DEÒ contains a number of the band’s interpretations of traditional songs and tunes, it also showcases some brand-new original compositions, too, in both English and Gaelic. Musically, too, the album combines the traditional sounds of pipes, flute, fiddle and accordion with more contemporary influences. And the result is a stunningly vibrant synthesis of the traditional and the modern. Infectious modern beats jostle with the long-revered sounds of Gaelic folk to produce something that is fresh, vibrant and instantly moreish.

“The feeling of returning to music in 2021 highlighted the band’s roots with traditional tunes and bringing people together to dance,” say Beinn Lee. “That fundamental aspect of the band’s music is part of DEÒ and compliments lots of new material borne out of the band’s strong ambition to drive Gaelic music forward in new ways.”

The band are Micheal Steele, Pàdruig Morrison, Mairi Thérèse Gilfedder, James Stewart, Anna Black, and Seoras Lewis. They’ve been able to bring a strongly-held inheritance in Gaelic song and west coast pipe music with being open to more diverse contemporary influences, too, meaning they are now a much in-demand live act, from festivals to weddings.

Taking a break from catching up with new folk releases these past few weeks while I finished my latest book, this has been a stunning album to come back to. I absolutely love it!

Released: 17th December 2021

https://www.beinnlee.com/

Alt-folk: album review – The Daughters ‘Golden Shore’

Acoustic alt-folk duo The Daughters is a recent collaboration between two Scottish singer-songwriters Martha Middlemiss and Mary Moira McKay. Although the two had been singing together informally for a number of years, the quirks of lockdown and the arrival of socially-distanced walks into our day to day vocabulary led to things being taken a step further.

Songs began to materialise as the two shared their regular walks along Scotland’s Tyne River. An initial single ‘The Mountains’ was released in Spring 2021, which celebrated the beauty of Scotland’s landscape and the determination of those who sought solace, inspiration and escapism from conquering its peaks during the unsettling times as the pandemic took hold.

Soon enough songs began to materialise and Golden Shore is the result: twelve delightful original songs exploring themes around the great outdoors, love, faith and life dilemmas.

The duo’s charmingly quirky harmonised vocals are a real delight and Middlemiss and McKay have turned out to be the perfect fit for one another. Indeed, the pair’s voices are so alike that at times during the sessions even they found themselves struggling to tell one from the other.

The pair are backed by a talented collection of guest musicians each of whom deliver both charm and empathy to the collection of songs. These are Alice Allen (cello), Calum McIntyre (percussion), Chris Amer (acoustic and electric guitar), Duncan Lyall (acoustic and electric bass) and Martin Lee Thompson (euphonium).

An uplifting album and a new creative partnership borne out of the adversity of the pandemic Golden Shore has certainly helped put a spring in my step.

Released: 5th November 2021

https://thedaughtersmusic.com/

Folk: album review – Màiri MacMillan ‘Gu Deas’

On her long-awaited debut album entitled Gu Deas (meaning south or southern), Màiri MacMillan presents us with interpretations of eleven traditional Gaelic songs. For MacMillan, Gaelic folksong and the Gaelic language is not merely some recent exploration of Scotland’s rich musical heritage. She lives and breathes it and is very much the genuine article.

From Milton in South Uist, MacMillan was brought up surrounded by Gaelic language, culture, music and song and began singing at an early age. Gaelic is her first language and Gaelic songs, and traditions run deep in her family.

“The songs on this album have been learned from recordings of women, mostly from South Uist, who passed on songs for future generations,” she writes in the sleeve-notes.

MacMillan is blessed with one of these beautiful, clear, pure voices that is just so perfect for this material and her familiarity with and deep love for the songs shines through.

The songs have been given fresh-sounding but sympathetic contemporary arrangements by the musician Mhairi Hall, who arranged and produced the album, learning from past recordings of South Uist tradition bearers. Alongside Hall (harmonium, piano, flute, and whistle), the album features Megan Henderson (fiddle and voice), Ali Hutton (bodhrán, guitar, whistle, great highland bagpipes) and Rachel Newton (clàrsach, electric harp and voice).

The extensive sleeve-notes, in both Gaelic and English, provide full lyrics and additional background information for each of the songs. The themes range from mythical creatures to long lost love to banishment to battle laments. An especially poignant moment is at the end of the first song ‘Wily Margaret’ where a few verses from an original field recording of the song, now in the custody of National Trust for Scotland, are spliced into MacMillan’s own version.

A beautifully-made album that will find a suitable home with anyone who has a love for Gaelic songs and traditions.

https://mairimacmillan.com/

Folk/country singer-songwriter: album review – Tom Clelland ‘Handpicked & Collected’

Tom Clelland is a Scottish folk singer-songwriter. He’s released several albums to date and Handpicked & Collected is something of a career retrospective. A double CD compilation comprising 23 tracks it brings together favourites from his previous albums along with live recordings.

His approach takes something from the Scottish folk tradition, something from American country and with Clelland’s compelling story-telling at the heart.

The first disc (the “Handpicked” part) features eight songs penned by Clelland based on historical events and myths. Themes range from war – including ‘Carion Craw’ commemorating the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 and ‘The Wind She Changed’ written at the time of the second Gulf War – to the supernatural such as ‘The Ghost With The Squeaky Wheel’ and ‘The Devil and the Hangman’.

With the second disc (the “Collected” part) we get a whopping fifteen songs and the themes are more eclectic here. There’s a much more personal feel to some of the song-writing here. Opening track ‘Slow Down’ is a delicious slice of infectious olde-time country while another country-flavoured track ‘Country Music Once Again’ takes a wry look at Clelland’s musical influences over the decades. There’s more of Clelland’s historical-based storytelling as well as the one track that’s not wholly original is ‘How Far To Babylon’, with lyrics adapted from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

While Clelland’s vocals and guitar are at the core of all twenty-three tracks various musical guests provide additional accompaniment at various points, bringing added authenticity to the diverse range of musical influences explored on the album whether that’s Scottish folk or American country – from Mairearad Green on pipes to Willie Gamble on pedal steel.

Handpicked & Collected is a delightful retrospective from a talented singer-songwriter with a foot in both the folk and country camps.

Released: 10th May 2021

http://www.tomclelland.co.uk/

Folk: album review – Gnoss ‘The Light of the Moon’

Following a hugely well-received debut album in 2019, Scottish folk four-piece Gnoss are back with a follow-up. The Light Of The Moon reveals Gnoss to be in fine form once again and they will not be short of plaudits for this release. Featuring seven instrumentals and four songs, whether it’s the infectiously upbeat pieces or the more poignant ones The Light Of The Moon simply oozes with life and joy.

Built around the same quartet of Aidan Moodie (vocals, acoustic guitar), Graham Rorie (fiddle, mandolin, electric tenor guitar), Connor Sinclair (flute, whistles) and Craig Baxter (Bodhran, percussion) as on the previous Drawn From Deep Water album, this one also boasts Braebach’s James Lindsey on double bass.

Moodie: “The creative process spanned the strangest period in our lives. Most of the writing was done in isolation, with us finally coming together to arrange and carve the album’s sound in the autumn. We set out to create  a record that was distinctly Gnoss not only by writing all-original material but looking more closely at blending the sonic textures of our instruments.”

“The album was recorded at the end of a year that should have been filled with career highlights and instead became quite the opposite – and I think all the emotion connected with that was channelled into the creative process of the release and we pushed ourselves into new spaces musically.”

Vibrant, inventive and joyful The Light Of The Moon promises to be one of the real stand-out contemporary folk albums of the year. A most excellent and not-at-all-difficult second album.

Released: 7th May 2021 by Blackfly Records

https://gnossmusic.com/

Folk: album review – Various artists ‘Between Islands’

The Between Islands Project began life in 2014 with the aim of bringing together contemporary songwriters from Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides and celebrate the rich musical heritage of those islands. In the years that followed a number of diverse individual projects emerged out of this, from joint song-writing ventures through to exhibitions, lectures, films and, of course, live performances.

Come 2020 and Covid was to throw a spanner in the works. Performances had been scheduled at both the Shetland Folk Festival and the Heb Celt festival in Stornaway but, undeterred, project co-ordinator Alex MacDonald sought to translate the project from the stage to the studio.

He explains: “As the project was based on live events, initially we were at a loss as to how it could be saved. Thankfully we were able to redesign what was planned, and this double CD contains both live work previously captured and a series of entirely new tracks recorded in lockdown.”

The result is a breath-taking thirty-track, two-disc collection showcasing some top-notch song-writing, exquisite singing  and inventive contemporary arrangements of traditional fiddle tunes.

The thirteen musicians featured are: Maggie Adamson. Louise Bichan, Williw Campbell, Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Neil Johnstone, Jenny Napier Keldie, Kathleen MacInnes, Linda MacLeod, Jane Hepburn MacMillan, Arthur Nicholson and Satfishforty.  

The ‘lockdown disc’ was created from sessions that paired up artists across the existing projects while also allowing the opportunity for entirely new remote collaborations and compositions. Consequently, the disc begins by introducing the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney musicians respectively over the opening three tracks before going on to explore a range of other pairings. The ‘live disc’ meanwhile was something that had long been planned and features performances from both Orkney Folk Festival and the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornaway. A detailed twelve-page booklet accompanies the two discs.

When live events do, once more, become possible this lovingly-curated CD will undoubtedly ensure the reputation of the Between Islands project will be stronger than ever and their return to the stage warmly anticipated.

Released: 11t December 2020

www.betweenislands.com

This week’s featured artist: Elena Piras – new album of Scottish folk ‘Where The Wind Blows’

Where The Wind Blows is the second album from Elana Pira. Not unusually for a Scottish folk release it features a number of traditional Scottish and Gaelic melodies alongside familiar favourites like Francis McPeake’s ‘Wild Mountain’s Thyme’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. It’s an album of Scottish folk with a twist, however. Hailing from Sardinia, Piras inherited her father’s love of singing from an early age and began performing professionally in Italy when young.

“I think when you begin on a path so young, it just becomes an unquestionable part of the fabric of your life and your whole being. Making music is as natural as breathing for me,” she says.

Piras moved to the UK aged 18, where she co-founded and toured with the London Bulgarian choir. It was in 2006, however, following a move to Scotland and a position at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art that her love of Scottish music really began to make itself felt. Immersing herself in the local music scene Piras became a popular fixture at festivals and released her debut album in 2010. Journey was predominantly an album of traditional Scottish music but also included songs from Ireland, Sardinia and Bulgaria

Being visually impaired since birth, Elena believes it has enabled her to impart a very special meaning to her folk music. She also feels a particular affinity to Scots, Irish and Gaelic folk and maintains that nothing can compare to it in terms of being able to convey the beauty and hardship of a land and its people and its ability to transport both performer and audience into its melodies and narrative.

Where The Wind Blows is Elena Pira’s second album and very much continues the journey she embarked upon with her debut release – exploring and interpreting traditional Scottish music. Recorded in a shed that was repurposed as a recording studio, the project has drawn in a number of talented musicians. As the pandemic threw up the now familiar range of logistical challenges, some of the album’s collaborators also contributed their parts from similarly unconventional locations. Perseverance has its rewards, however, and we are left with an exceptional album.

With a pure clear voice, a self-evident love for the Gaelic language and an instinctive feel for interpreting the material in her own unique way, Elena Pira brings something that’s both precious and meaningful to the Scottish folk scene.

Where The Wind Blows was released 20th November 2020

Visit the website of Elena Piras here