Eabhal – Aisling: Album Review

A dream of an offering, courtesy the Isle of Uist. Eabhal offer more vibrant Gaelic music.

Release date: 20th May 2022

Label: Bothy Society

Format: CD / Digital

Surely, you say, surely the market is overly spoilt, awash even, with Gaelic bands from the far reaches of this land? Well, I would have to differ, even if the wealth is indeed somewhat lavish, but there is always room for more, especially when of this quality. So, if I can’t convince you by the sheer volume of such reviews, let me convert you by your taking time to hit the clip below…..

Eabhal actually came together on the Islands, the core of the band meeting and studying on Uist, which makes a change, I guess, from Glasgow, whose Royal Conservatoire of Music seems to be pumping out virtuosi even quicker than Newcastle Uni’s Folk and Trad course. The current five piece hail from the Isle of Tiree, Sutherland, the Cairngorms, Easter Ross and, for grounding, rural Northumbria. Aisling is their second release, after 2019’s This Is How The Ladies Dance, which turned a few ears at the time. Fiddle, guitar, accordion and pipes are nominally their main instrumentation, over which soars the beautiful voice of Kaitlin Ross. Possibly the widest known of the other members is Megan MacDonald, whose stellar accordion graced the stage twice at this years’s recent Skye Live, with Heisk and with Ceilear Cèilidh Trail, but fiddler, Jamie MacDonald, guitarist, Nicky Kirk, and piper, Hamish Hepburn, all too have fingers in plenty pies. (Ever fancied glamping on Tiree, the Hawaii of the Hebrides? If you do, the chances are it will be on Jamie’s croft and in one of his cabins, his other business, aside from running, as well, the annual Tiree Music Fest.)

Rather than a paean to the Irish comedienne, Ms. Bea, Aisling is the Gaelic for dream (and, thus, the meaning also of her name), a title that well encapsulates well the feel of the album, a sonic excursion to the five parts of the land they each hail from. Mhòrag opens the album, Ross’s voice keening over mainly, the accordion, the other instruments providing a rhythmic sway, as Hepburn’s whistle becomes apparent alongside. Backing vocals give the flavour of a puirt à beul, but without the plod that some exponents allow this style to become. This is more a light dance than any tiring trek. Farewell Regality follows, a slow and mournful song, exercising Kirk’s roots, known maybe best from the Unthank’s version. with Hepburn, now on flute, a striking presence. He gives weight to the fragility, here, of the main vocals and the harmony of Megan MacDonald. Flute again leads off Cuir Cùlaibh ri Asainte, another song, with, if you listen carefully, the subtle double bass of guest, Charlie Stewart. This song sees also Jamie MacDonald’s fiddle stepping first up into prominence, but, already, it is the unison play that is most striking, a swelter of accordion dashing away in the background, until the entry of bagpipes, warm, reekin’ rich. You almost don’t want them to stop, but that wish can be easily set aside for Ross’s dulcet tone.

Taigh is an instrumental, fiddle bowing to the fore, flute slotting in by the side, Kirk’s guitar a solid metronomic blur. Delicate swells of extra notes slowly build up the expectation, the syncopation slowing for a stately jig. And, sure, you know what’s coming, or you think you do, Hepburn’s secret weapon held back. All too often pipes are used as an easy short cut to engagement, but here they are reserve ammunition, the powder being kept dry. It is, however, on a drone that Air a’ Ghille Tha Mo Rùn then starts, long drawn accordion lower registers adding extra atmosphere, with Ross’s Gaelic singing over the fingerpicked guitar of Kirk. A sad sounding melody at least, my Gaelic not yet up to scratch, it gradually picks up momentum. Accordion, fiddle and flute combine to give an almost taste of Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero; this is a tune that will stick. Lovely. Swan’s Pool, which I note has the shared credit of the Battlefield Band Lewis fiddler, Alasdair White, will sidestep you, seeming at first to be one thing, with squeezes of accordion taking attention, ahead then of an unexpected bagpipe counter, off into a different expectation. All the band in unison, separately and collectively, get their turn here, a lively piece that’ll get feets a tapping, all the more as it takes a further turn and swoops off into the glen. If it is the swan’s pool, I don’t care, I want a dip. The lack of any overt percussion, strummed strings aside, is actually a strength, as it forces attention on the interplay at all the various levels. (But I’m damned if I can’t hear something, on this track, beating a rhythm, unless it a trick of the ear?!)

Aiodheal, released as a single, is actually a very poppy and commercial number, attractive enough, but a little lightweight compared to the rest, if, by that virtue, ideal for cracking a surprise in the chart listings. The pipes skirl appealingly and Ross’s voice is as bubblier than before. Great for ending the live show, I dare say, the hoe-down at the end adding extra laldy. Neist Point is the site of one of Scotlands more famous lighthouses, on the Isle of Skye. This evocative and so-entitled composition calls to mind some of the musics from Music In Trust, the Battlefield Band’s soundtrack to the series about Scottish National Trust properties and landscapes. The various instruments joust, winding and weaving about the central melody. Certainly a high water mark, along with Swan’s Pool. The final track then is as unexpected as it is to be enjoyed. The lyrics are by, or from, should I say, Edgar Allan Poe, of all people, the arrangement based on Sarah Jarosz’s, the version the Texas multi-instrumentalist wiz took to the Transatlantic Sessions. And like nothing like anything else here, it is a refreshing portent of the future capabilities this band might have up their sleeves. As a pointer, this sounds like the Decemberists, in their Offa Rex guise, and is a terrific way to end the album, imagining how this direction might go further on album number three.

Here’s a live version of just that song, from 2019:

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