Elemental music, literally, from the Northern Isles. Powerful and organic.
Release date: 26th August 2022
Format: CD / digital
As we sit in our houses, thinking of an impending winter of ever-thicker jumpers and of still shivering, rue on the fact that the Orkney Islands produce more energy: wind and water derived, than the grid can even handle, resulting in an excess, unable to be passed further south. It is tempting to feel this energy is what fuels Fara, a dynamo, literally, featuring three fiddlers and a piano, who send a sonic boom of intent and purpose through this, their third outing. The three fiddlers, each of who sing, are Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price and Kristan Harvey, each of whom have an intrinsic genetic memory of the importance of fiddle music to these northern isles. They a constant, here they are joined by Rory Matheson, a mainlander, from Assynt, but one whose playing, with Graham Rorie, so uplifted us here. He fully grasps the understanding that piano fulfils both a rhythmic role as well as the accompanying function of adding texture and contrast to the elsewhere melodies, his fingers dancing across the ivories. Lead and rhythm, if you will, like Wilko. (OK, the style of music is a tad different, but you get my gist.) And by dance, I don’t mean the pogo or a dad dance, I mean the full strip the willow of footwork, co-ordinated and complicated at the same time.
And guess who is, with the band, on co-production duties? No less than Seonaid Aitken, the strings arrangement genius, who has scattered herself liberally across so many Scottish, and other, records received At The Barrier this year. Euan Burton recorded the sessions, himself no slouch in the guarantees of goodness his name can provide. So, good team, great hands. Creative Scotland once more show their confident hand in supporting the arts, a grant from them having helped make this possible.
Solar, the first set, three linked tunes, commemorates both the Orcadian summer; they do get one, and Summerdale, famous for the last pitched land battle on any of the Orkneys. 1529, history buffs, there also having been, at some time a witch. (A witch? See also here.) It kicks off with Matheson’s lilting keyboard, strains of fiddle seeping in slowly, before, with a pound of the bass keys, the fiddles join, one by one, before a joyous unison is joined, the three women sticking to the template, yet each breezing around it. The Witch becomes the Battle (o’Summerdale) and thence Sunkiss and it is an invigorating start. Wind Dancers pairs Chinook Winds and Turbine Down, in a celebration of the power of the wind, the first having a palpable feel of Chinese wind chimes, despite actually celebrating the wind through the corn. Turbine Down relates to the inability, sometimes, of the turbines to deal with, what the sleeve notes call the “light breeze” of the islands. I suspect they jest, and this is a glorious rout, an accelerating piano motif over which the fiddles bluster and billow.
Fair Winds is the first song, written by Jeana Leslie, showing off her keen and pure voice, not a million miles from that of Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, of Altan. Her fellow fiddlers add some harmonies and, unable to resist, Aitken here adds a notable solo on her own violin. Witness just how intuitively the keyboard picks up on all the cues, to buoy the melody. The first part of Broom Power, All a’ Mhuillin, is a near piano solo, in a paired set of tunes around hydro power, water, conjuring up a feel of flowing water. The fiddles join for O2, here the name of the state of the art tidal energy harnessing kit, rather than of phone companies and concert halls. It is as powerful as it sounds. Another Song then, Merry Dancers, the local name for the Northern Lights. Suitably ethereal backing vocals enshroud Leslie’s lead melody, the whole evoking the splendour and spirituality of this phenomenon, no stranger to these islands.
Scapa Flow casts a long shadow, usually referring to the scuttling of the impounded German fleet, actually by its own mariners, after the end of WW1. However, during the war, the naval base was also the home of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916, after hitting a mine, most on board going down with her. The casualties included Lord Kitchener, the then secretary of state for war. A glorious lament, written and played by Harvey, commemorates this event, a haunting tune which sticks fast. More shipwreck inhabits the next set, the wryly entitled West Tide Story, with Matheson dedicating his part of the tune to The Bermuda, a ship deigned for scrap, which ran aground off the coast near Ullapool, on the north-west mainland. Song In The Night, adapted from a poem by Duncan J. Robertson, exposes again the shimmery beauty of Leslie’s voice, alone over quietly repeated chords, with a slow build, as the other voices join and the piano adds additional notes and nuance. It captures well the feel of the long dark and unforgiving night, ahead the relief of the dawn.
Back to the electricity of nature, and wave power, with White Horse Power, if not all that it seems. The initial two tunes that address the cascading waves, first gently, then with more force, are followed by the memory of a real White Horse, a pony owned, in childhood, by Price, this final tune written by her in the memory, with a the differentiation between surf and gallop actually identifiable. The final song, Northerner, addresses the contrast of summer and winter in these Northern climes, near constant dusk in winter, versus the stretched and elongated days of summer. A wistful ode, it carries a sense of longing, stemming from the darker days. The words come from Margaret Tait, Orcadian polymath poet and filmmaker. That sense of dimming down the day extends into Excess Electric, which returns to the enigma that Orkney now produces more sustainable energy than it needs or, as stated, that the grid can handle. The irony is not lost, not least as we all face the new impending tariffs being granted. The mood does, however, become increasingly hopeful, the combined foursome heading towards the end in celebration. The way forward is maybe here, in our Northern Isles and their wind and waves, as the gas reserves all but waft away.
Closing and title track, Energy Islands, is worth the wait to last, a prolonged and musing piece that collates together the content before. Subtitled Innovation, it encapsulates the feel that some of the answers might really stem from here. Quite how melody can transmit such positivity might be moot, but believe me, this slow but firm tune is a statement off something, something proud and magisterial, and the colossus of nature and its power may as well be that. If it fits. And it does, the instruments and voices bonded seamlessly.
Here’s a splendid preview video, featuring Solar: