Brighde Chaimbeul, Ross Ainslie & Steven Byrnes – LAS: Album Review

Stunning dual pipes and guitar virtuoso playing, staking a deserving claim for the next MG Alba Trad awards. And a whole lot more.

Release date: 2nd September 2022

Label: self-released (Bandcamp)

Format: CD / digital

We love a bagpipe, here, or, at least, this one writer does, the news of this collaboration a teeth-watering joy when first mentioned. Ross Ainslie is a true giant in piping circles; go witness his work with Jarlath Henderson, in India Alba, in Treacherous Orchestra and with lifelong buddy, Ali Hutton, in Symbiosis, let alone a bevy of solo works. And Brighde Chaimbeul, who hit the heather running, barely a year or so back, with her astounding debut recording, and who was such a whizz here. Steven Byrnes Haberlin, to give his full name, is maybe lesser known, a drummer and guitarist, here mainly on mandola, from Ireland, maybe caught in the small print of records and appearances by acts such as, again, Treacherous Orchestra and Kate Rusby. Three quality talents, two exceptional pipers and a rhythmist supreme! Bring it on!

Some timid souls approach the bagpipes with fear and trepidation, with genetic memory of Bannockburn maybe etched in their genes. And possibly a good few too many exposures to the Edinburgh Military Tattoos, which, like the Boat Race, was always granted prime time viewing on the sparse channels of TV back in the day. Fear not, ye cloth of ears and ye lily of liver, this is not the full majesty of the highland war pipes, being the gentler tones of the small pipes. Bellows driven, so no alarmingly distended cheeks to put you off your porridge, a relative more to the nuttier tone of the Northumbrian instrument. No wild skirls either, for those who fear the stark beauty of the Irish uillean pipes. (Me? Love ’em all!) A landmark recording no less, being the first such to feature pipes tuned in c, each player toting paired instruments to allow that, with apologies to anyone with a keener understanding of quite what that means. That it is novel is possibly as much as you need to know, is as much as I know, and it is spectacularly delightful.

A characteristic drone, as the pipes draw breath, and straight into a slow lament we go, the opener a medley of four tunes, entitled the Green Light Set. Initially, the pipes are in singular mode, with then the second joining alongside, they are both in perfect harmony and precision, ahead a deft slip up the gears, finding cruise mode, with the strummed mandola adding some anchor. It all accelerates seamlessly, with melodies cascading out the surely open roof. Three Ainslie compositions, with the fourth by old ATB chum, Damien O’Kane, it is an attractive and enticing start. Lovers of the old audible 1,2,3,4 should love Bulgarian, track two, as it is with that, and the drones, that it starts, straight into the typically complex polyrhythms that categorise Balkan music. Chaimbeul has already shown how well this style translates to small pipes, as did Davy Spillane and Andy Irvine on their exquisite Eastwind, thirty years ago. You’ll want to dance to this, I assure you. Some of you will, possibly even manage to get your feet around the time signatures, ahead of being found, false footed and red-faced, on the floor of your living room or study. From there it is two tunes by Chaimbeul, The Badger and The Weasel. Separate but joined, the initial hope of some riverbank tale, describing, perhaps, their jolly japes together, such reverie is swiftly lost as the pipes stretch out with a loping cadence, Byrnes picking some ballast to accompany. One might assume the lead is here taken by Chaimbeul, Ainslie adding some choral background drone before the two are clearly playing in unison, as it turns, on a sixpence, into the conjoined tune. As they play I can but imagine the smiles across each their faces, that moment of oneness discovered.

Another 1,2,3,4, oh joy, and we switch countries again. Gavotte Pourlet revealing some clearly Gallic roots, an almost courtly dance from the sound, but at a lick slightly faster than most courtiers might have appreciated. A spritely and entertaining mesh of entwined bellows and pipework, this is all bedding in terrifically, all nimble fingers urging the others on. John Patterson’s Mare is a traditional Scots tune, and is the two pipers alone. Sometimes the drone confuses listeners to this sort of music, the often relentlessness seeming a distraction. I commend this track as a textbook example or why it is there, what it adds and how much thinner it would all be without. Dod’s starts with Byrnes, this time on guitar, propelling forward a set of three tunes. I have to give the full name of the first, it being Dod’s Tartan Punk Rock Trews, one of the more uplifting titles of the year, as well as demanding the photo to prove their existence! The second tune is by English melodeon maestro, Andy Cutting, with the third by the Asturian, Spaniard, Javier Tejedor, a cross-cultural journey that accentuates the similarities rather than any difference between the three countries. Byrnes shows his worth and integral presence here, the pole position of a stringed instrument playing rhythm in this sort of setting. In the third tune I found myself musing on how, were the pipes a moog, this could easily be prog.

Strathspeys and Reels, unsurprisingly, is a more disciplined selection, my imagination catching the military drums often pitched into this dance music. (Dancing and fighting?) With still enough fluidity to dispel such thoughts, this is perhaps the most traditional instillation offered here. Lichko Lio then meanders back to the Balkans, first in a freeform solo expression of intent, ahead the rest of the trio kicking in with an exuberant canter, the blue touch paper having been truly taken. Just when you think it over, another ember reignites and off it goes, wildfire, in another direction. Magnificent.

If Bulgarian was a clue as to the second track, Irish sets the table for the penultimate, four selections from that canon. Even on the pipes, the intent is unmistakable, Byrne’s guitar here evoking the adoptive Irish of the bouzouki. If Liam O’Flynn ever played the small pipes, Planxty would have sounded like this. And so to the end, a slow majestic air by Ainslie, Susi and Ben’s, starting as a solo, the drone keeping its reassuring presence high in the mix. As the second pipes join, almost a fraction out of time, deliberately, it is a spine-tingling moment. Dipping between unison and harmony, the coals get a gradual stoke, as Byrne’s entry get anticipated. And anticipated some more. When it finally comes, delicately, rather than any full-on hooley, it is just so right, knowing he is going to start strumming any time now. Which, of course he does, avoiding too much egg, maintaining restraint yet still sinuous enough to end the track with grace and dignity and, indeed, the album. Lovely.

It may be apparent what this jury thinks about this release, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Ainslie seems unable to shake off the alchemy he can bring to any table, praise be, and Chaimbeul is cementing her place at that same, top table. Byrnes, by his very presence, essential and never supernumerary, assures this as being an album of the year. If they aren’t together at Skye Live 2023, someone somewhere hasn’t done their job properly.

Here they are, live, pre-pandemic, as the germ for this was being sewn:

Online: Ross Ainslie website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Brighde Chaimbeul: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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