More stellar sounds from the Highlands and Islands, blending the Gaelic and Scots traditions with a contemporary flourish.
Release date: 22nd April 2022
Label: Hò-rò Music
You want my top tip for the stock market? Bagpipes! Given the deluge of pipe-toting bands sweeping out the highlands and islands these days, I can’t help but think someone’s doing well out of it. That is, as well as the lovers of the majestic swirl of the instrument, inordinately spoilt for choice. Some bands even have a whole front row of them, two, three or more, a bladder section, if you will. Hò-rò might have but one, but, oh, what sounds Ally MacLean can squeeze out, with both full highland war pipes and the gentler lowland border pipes available to his powerful lungs. He also is a dab on low whistle. Of course, there is way more the band than just those instruments, not least as there are six, sometimes seven of them, adept also on accordion, fiddle, guitars, keys, bass and drums. Not forgetting the secret weapon of fiddler, Hannah Macrae, her exquisitely toned voice fluent in both Gaelic and Scots. Not a new band, they have been around for a number of years, since winning up and coming band at 2017’s MG Alba ScotsTrad Awards, and this is their third album, the line-up morphing somewhat along the way.
They describe New Moon as a work to celebrate both the new team and the landscape of their home territory, particularly the Island of Eigg; the striking cover art is a view of the Island from the mainland sands of Arisaig, painted by local artist, Dot Walker. If the west coast climate can be described as changeable, challenging even, so too is the music here. On the one hand are delicate and declamatory ballads, whilst frantic whirlwinds of instrumental mayhem make up much the rest of the fare.
A minute or so of atmospheric sounds open the album, redolent of mists sweeping across from the ocean, and certainly tingles the emergent goose-bumps, all ghostly voices and echoed instrumentation, Macrae’s vocal and fiddle gradually becoming prominent. Entitled, not unreasonably, Intro, it immediately then segues into Spot On, phased keyboards underpinning the fiddle as it takes flight, the shimmer gradually fading as Calum MacPhail’s accordion joins, the rhythm section slotting in seamlessly beneath. A sideways lurch has MacPhail taking the reins, the entire band a solid unit adding impact in all the right places., before a slower reprise, with bubbling bass from Calum MacQuarrie providing extra melodic texture. One of the singles from the set, catch it below, at the end of this piece.
Isle of Eigg, a song written by Robin Laing, aka the Whisky Bard, the singer-songwriter (and whisky pundit) from Edinburgh. Calum MacPhail here leads the vocals, showing a strong and confident tenor, full of seaweed and smoke. Over acoustic guitars and piano, there is a tinge of Americana influence to the tune, and when Macrae joins in on harmony vocals, you can’t help but wish you were on the Arisaig sands, staring across to the Island. A dram in hand, of course. Whistle and fiddle pair to give a gorgeous couple of breaks. Sticking with song, Beinn a’ Cheathaich is a classic song in the Gaelic tradition, with a rolling cadence, Macrae this time the main voice, the mix of the trad with the more modern keyboard and rhythm section shouldn’t fit so well, this something that can sometimes plod, but they crack this at just the right tempo, a slow sway more than a headlong rush. Little Bird is a mellow instrumental, steered by whistle, piano giving a sympathetic foundation. Muted electronic effects give a spooky touch to the joining fiddle, accordion now the structure to the melody. The gradual layering of instrumentation makes for an engaging and wistful few minutes.
By way of surprise, the band then tackle the old country staple, Long Black Veil, the Lefty Frizell song made most famous by the Band. The song suits the transatlantic translation, perhaps a reminder of the shared tradition across the sea. Played fairly straight, MacPhail handles the vocals, the innate Scottish feel emerging between the verses, as the instrumental solos conjoin and contrast. Kaylins follows as a set of jigs, each player taking a turn, ahead of a climactic breakdown. The piano is especially effective on this one, courtesy Paul Martin, who is also the electric guitarist, and foil to Sean Cousin’s metronomic acoustic. The pipes inevitably add to the righteous gravitas, propelled by, for this recording, the drums of Matt Arnot, with D.C. MacMillan being their more regular sticksman.
Again, to cleanse the palate, Macrae now delivers a delectable further ballad in Follow The Heron, then trading verses with MacPhail, the vocal partnership between them as snug as any pairing I can think of and is an undoubted strength of the band. This is a song I can hear Simon Nicol picking up for Fairport, so suited is it to his style and temperament. Dark Sky, New Moon gives a sense of winding down, an end of evening pub session style instrumental, fiddle and accordion pairing up again. As the tempo rises, piano gambols in with the rhythm section, and all is well with the world, a few time signature googlies to keep you on your toes. And then, from on your toes and onto your feet, the fast acceleration of the final tune in this triad, an express train caper, the guitar keeping the train firmly on the tracks ahead of a unison finale. It is only fitting that Macrae closes then the proceedings with another Gaelic song, Oran An Amadain Boidhich, a slow air that displays the fragile strength of her performance, all steel tempered gossamer, the piano of Martin once again perfect.
So, is there room for another trad contemporary band, their description, on the crowded marketplace and performance hall circuit? On this reckoning I would say a definite yes, there being sufficient originality to differentiate them well apart from their peers. They take the album of the road in May, the launch being, a delayed date, at Inverness’s Ironworks, on the 6th of May, other dates in Scotland following. I haven’t spotted their name yet on any festival billings, but they would be a plus for any promoter with a space to fill. (Are you listening, Peter Chegwyn at Wickham?)
Here’s Spot On, as promised above: