Immaculate ‘tronica from the Gaelic mixmasters turn music makers,Valtos
Release date: 10th June 2022
Label: self-released (Bandcamp)
Format: digital only (thus far…)
The Kingdom(s) of the North are on a roll, with the deluge of new and innovative musics showing no sign of slowing up. This is nowhere more marked than on the islands of the Hebrides, inner and outer, where one could be tempted to think every adult available is either in a band or some other sort of performer. We here at At The Barrier haven’t shied away from drawing attention to this tonn-mara of output, and aren’t going to stop now, delighted to draw attention to Valtos, a name maybe new to most. The odd immersionist may be familiar with the name, it having popped up on Niteworks’ 2020 release, An t-Eilean Mixes, Valtos responsible for the remix of the opening track, previously the title track of that band’s earlier studio release, Air Fàir an Là. Well, stretching the comparisons a tad, if Niteworks are the Chemical Brothers of Gaelictronica, Valtos are a gentler affair, more akin to Banco de Gaia or Bonobo. And highly recommended on this, their debut long player. Only available as yet from Bandcamp, I suspect and hope a tactile release may emerge with time, vinyl shortages willing amongst other things.
Nominally a duo, the band consists of Martyn MacDonald and Daniel Docherty, Skye born and bred both, and each with an ear for a remix and how to do it. Nip over to their on line footprint and catch their dabs with the likes of Skye local icons, Peatbog Faeries, Project Smoke, Niteworks and the up and coming Cornish Celts, Mec Lir and you won’t regret it. This has been in the pipe line for a while, whistles whetted by some sensational live shows in and around Glasgow, with an emphasis on pipes and whistles. (Strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true, fiddle perhaps taking a greater part, but, hey, it was too good line to resist.) So, given the references and the remixed, is this just more of the same? Let the boys answer: “Where (others) take traditional music and add electronic elements, we describe our music as turning that on its head, taking electronic music and adding traditional elements.” See what you think.
Solas opens the set with a jiggle of fiddle and a swathe of synth, a keening voice, moaning, making itself clear, before keyboards trickle in a repeated phrase. Then the percussion clutters in and a stately fiddle processional has set the scene perfectly, mists rolling down off the mountains. To my ears, biased by genetic memory, this couldn’t be anywhere but the Hebrides, the fade-out also offering some apposite piano phrasing. Beinn segues from that introduction, bridged by the spoken word of Lana Pheutan. A BBC Alba presenter and a passionate advocate for the Gaelic, in both that language and in English she bumps your geese immediately, before the fiddle of Euan MacLaughlan transports you further into the ether, with a controlled and infectious tone. (MacLaughlan, whose fiddle features throughout, is a multi-intrumentalist from Leith, who sides also as a dub producer; check out his EP with Tom Spirals, An Dannsa Dub, from late last year.) Eilidh Cormack, from SIAN, and herself a regular with Niteworks, can then be heard, adding her spectral vocals as the track progresses. I’m hooked!
Donnie Munro, the erstwhile Runrig man, gets to feature in next track, Ceòl Dannsa, his speech sampled and given some distort and echo, ahead a catchy synth riff, he fading in and out, afore more of MacLaughlan’s vibrant fiddle. This then slots into and alongside the main theme. I generally baulk at too much spoken word in otherwise instrumental electronica; here it is a prominent feature that has me questioning that pre-existing prejudice. So too, then, when Pheutan declaims the Prelude aspect of Home, about her childhood domain, Skye, clearly, it fits, largely courtesy the atmospheric backing. Especially then, as she picks up the singing, auto-tuned for style rather than sleight, for the track proper, Home. Singing, at least initially, in English, it is worth it for the non-Gaelic speaker, she continuing the theme of her home and its specialness. A commercial track, the fiddle has you then singing along the repeated refrain, with the additional vocal of Cormack putting the cream in the crannachan.
That sometimes annoying and pedestrian clip-clop slap beat, the sort that permeates a lot of electronica by numbers, starts off Charlie’s On The Run, but the fiddle then dismisses that sense of cliché. I’m guessing the Charlie is one Charles Stuart, possibly post Culloden, fleeing for his life form the Duke of Cumberland’s forces. A strangely joyful tune, so possibly not, with ahoo-hooa b.v.s that have you guessing when they will next appear. At just about the middle of the album, it is a perfect high-water mark. Some peurt à bell, courtesy Cormack is next, for Air a’ Mhuir, over a bubbling electric bass line, her vocals in turn clarion clear and then distorted. And yes, that same drum track is there, maybe this time perhaps overstaying that new found welcome. But the tinkling intro to Skye dismisses any of that negativity, distortion of the spoken vocal lines, vying with other processed sounds, to give the main ballast to the song, hints of almost middle-eastern fiddle sails in. The duo are now really beginning to convince of the seamlessness between the ceilidh and the rave, this being the thesis behind their intent. Portree, Skye’s small main town, would (does?) have both over the same weekend, it seems, the dancers moving from one to the other. Dorn provides more of the same, if, with then, the shock of something hitherto not missed, or not realised as being missed, gradually filtering in from the recesses of the room. Yes, it is the bagpipes, here provided by Niteworks front man, Allan MacDonald, the backing less of bombast than he usually has to deal with, although there is a very attractive synth baseline to latch on to.
The next famous friend to grace the album is the de-facto Mànran main man, Gary Innes. And if you can’t work out what S.T.W., the name of this track, stands for, well, it’s time you got you to a ceilidh. (Clue: nothing about cricket or getting undressed.) With an arpeggiating sequencer beckoning it in, Innes recites a paean to the sort of country dancing that might ever grace a village hall across the highlands and islands. MacDonald’s pipes are back in the fray and to the fore, before jousting with MacLoughlan’s always excellent fiddle. The blend here between trad and twenty-first century is exquisite. This one you won’t want to end. But, as the foreboding tones of Gu Math fade up, it is the feel more of a sea voyage that is summonsed, the rhythmic sampled vocal and percussive undercurrent reminiscent of rowing. The title translates as ‘well’ or ‘fine’, so I may be off-tack here.
Fada follows as another widescreen reverie of the sort that distilleries tend to play, usually with Bill Paterson invoking the merits of whichsoever dram is involved over the top. Hopefully, here, a Talisker. But, no talking here, it is but an opener to final track, Air Falbh. Befittingly translating as Away, this is a has a feel of distance, with vinyl crackles, and a repeated picked electric guitar narrative providing a bed for more glorious Cormack vocals, this time in her favoured language. The percussion here is just perfect, with a blend of the current and nostalgia co-habiting the tune. The wistful auto-tuned close has you wanting to start all over. And you likely will.
A near-perfect debut that catches well the middle ground between mood music and dance music. And for fear of raising the wrath of the duo responsible, with use again of the g-tronica word, their preferred descriptor for this sort of music is electro-trad. I will try to remember that.
Here’s the glorious video for Home: