Vibrant new music from Niteworks, Skye’s masters of Gaelictronica.
Release Date: 14th January 2022
Label: Comann Music
Formats: CD / Digital
Anyone nervous in anticipation of this, the third full length release from the intrepid Skye fusioneers can now relax. As one undoubtedly in said camp, the angst was whether they could build on the traction of the 2015’s eponymous debut and 2018’s Air Fàir an Là, and still remain at the forefront of where Scottish trad and dance music have collided so joyously. With the undoubted answer being a triumphant aye, they somehow managing to be both more electronic and more trad folkie, with quite how remaining a conundrum I can’t quite fathom. But it is, the opposites never more strikingly drawn together, presented as if the most natural pairing in the world. My guess is this may be down to the choice of producer, with Andrea Gobbi now taking the hot seat. Having self-produced the first and then enrolled techno lynchpin Alex Smoke, Gobbi has the broadness of experience; he has produced for the likes of Treacherous Orchestra, and many of the players involved therein, Rura, Inyal and Imar, well appreciating and experienced in how the nuances of traditional styles can be updated for the 21st century.
But that shouldn’t diminish the efforts of the four band members in progressing their sound and widening their influences, with a palette encompassing new sounds and ideas. Innes Strachan (synth/keys), Allan MacDonald (bagpipes), Christopher Nicolson (bass) and Ruairidh Graham (drums), the core of the band, remain unchanged, the first three also all adept at live and studio programming, with singers and additional musicians brought in where necessary. Previous recordings have included the likes of Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes and Alasdair Whyte (of Whyte, his duo with the unrelated Ross Whyte), the latter two here again, along with the singer Ellen MacDonald, almost the band’s fifth member, quite apart from her work with Dàimh and SIAN. Her bandmates from SIAN also appear for a second time, with first appearances from up and coming singers Hannah Rarity and Beth Malcolm. A string section appears not infrequently, to fill out the cinematic soundscape, in part drawn from Glasgow’s Kinnaris Quintet, other old friends of the band.
Each-Uisge starts with intent, chords of keyboard pounding over an ethereal synth, as a metronomic pitter patter of beats strikes up. A moment later Graham’s drums pound in and a chorus of pipes and fiddles blaze in, as normal Niteworks service is resumed. The track then breaks and builds, vintage euphoria style, the main theme regrouping and rejoining. A glorious and emphatic start, which augurs well. But then, rather than delving back into the familiar smoke and heather, Gura Mine Tha Fo Èislein, is an altogether different fish, redolent more of Black Cherry era Goldfrapp in style, all bouncy synth and insistent rhythm. Yet, as Ellen MacDonald’s vocal glides in, effortlessly, it is all too obviously an ancient melody lurking within. That tune and the arrangement, divided by centuries, fit perfectly.
Gloomy Winter is a majestic and haunting ballad, all big sky and surround sound. Hannah Rarity has a strong and appealing voice, carrying the song into an epic and almost prog rock direction, not least as the strings soar over synthetic keyboard brass. If ever a song has cried out to close Hollywood’s next massive screen blockbuster, this is it. That the source material, by Robert Tannahill, stems from 1807 seems scarcely possible or believable. Guns Of Ajaccio follows, an instrumental with the skirl of bagpipes coming almost as a surprise after the throbbing intro, a reminder, should you have dropped attention, forgetting where the band are coming from. The blend of electronic sound and the organic nature of the string and wind driven instrumentation in this band written tune is seamless. Then John Riley, a traditional broadsheet ballad, and it is a classic tale of thwarted love, with a loping rhythm that, in another age, would fit Fairport or Steeleye to a T, with Beth Malcolm the perfect Sandy/Maddy figure. The setting, of course, sets it somewhat apart, but acts, strangely, as a passing of a baton of sorts. Niteworks are showing they are no flash in the pan and know their lineage.
With Old Ghost Waltz, an almost jazzy cadence enters into the fray, as accordion follows the initial keyboard lead, each courtesy, I guess, Strachan. Another traditional tune, it comes over like Phil Cunningham in a chill out room. An instrument so far unused by Niteworks, I am intrigued as to where this could go in live performance. A perfect palate cleanser ahead of the more portentous Theid Mi Lem Dheòin, a tour de force for Alasdair Whyte, a brooding build of a song, complete with a choir of assembled voices, including, amongst others, Pedro Cameron (Man of the Minch) and SIAN, adding to the swell. For me it is the least successful of the selection here, seeming perhaps a little too stolid, feeling more Whyte with Niteworks than vice versa. And I speak as a fan of Whyte, the band, their brand of gaelictronica generally more studied and serious than the broad grin of Niteworks.
Bumpth, a further instrumental, reminds how integral the drumming of Ruairidh Graham is to the overall sound of Niteworks, a solid foundation that allows any electronic percussion to flow outwards from his prompting, rather than being supernumary thereto. With synthesiser taking the lead here, there is again an almost prog feel to this track, as the tune wiggles and weaves over the rhythm section, the pipes slotting in alongside almost surreptitiously. The by now familiar tones of Ellen McDonald introduce penultimate number, Teannaibh Dlùth, and is a return to the more familiar templates of earlier albums, vocals with structured electronic backing, and should reassure anyone fearing the band going weird on them. As the rest of SIAN join in to give ghostly harmonies, and some glorious muted electronic glissandos cascade back and forth, this helps underpin the purpose of the new additional directions. Which sets the table perfectly for the closer, and title track, frankly the most affecting piece of music yet to be made by this band. A magnificently moody melange of strings and programmed sounds set up a misty ambience over which Kathleen McInnes’ voice cracks exquisitely, searing the song with emotions that feel like loss and heartbreak. However, given A’ Ghrian translates as The Sun, maybe it is hope. Either way it is astonishing, McInnes ending the song, and the album, unaccompanied. Cue shivers up the spine.
Make no bones about it, Niteworks are a force majeure. This significant landmark in their career so far is the one that should shake off any lingering suspicion they ride on the shirttails of other and earlier marriages between folk and electronica. They are now truly pioneers and should be cherished as such. My only slight disappointment, if any, is the relative paucity of Allan MacDonalds’s bagpipes, such a focus in the live context, but, within the wider sonic repertoire offered here, perhaps that is both understandable and acceptable.
Not heard ’em or of ’em, yet? Remedy that now….. Here’s Teannaibh Dlùth, featuring SIAN:
Niteworks play Glasgow’s Celtic Connections on 21/1/22, paired with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Glasgow Royal Concert Hall), ahead of a wider tour in April and May, which includes their headline slot at Skye Live on 13/5/21.