Breabach-Fàs: Album Review

Sublime marriage of the the organic with some softer edges of modernity allowing for sustained -and sustaining, growth from Breabach.

Released: 14th October 2022

Label: Breabach Records

Format: CD / Digital / Vinyl (Feb. 2023)

The last twelve to eighteen months have found this band, individually and collectively, perhaps busier than ever in their 17 year history. Embracing only the second line-up change in their career, Conan McDonagh has now replaced James Duncan McKenzie, not only maintaining the two man pipes and whistle frontline of the band, but adding also the more rarefied tints of Uillean pipes to their instrumental palette.

This is their eighth recording, and is fairly hot on the heels of Dùsgadh, the multi media project, with Cat Bruce, that we so liked last year, and follows solo projects, this year and last, from singer and fiddler, Megan Henderson (review here) and, the busiest bass player in Scottish folk and trad based music, James Lindsay (review here).

Dàs means growth, as in sprouting or germinating, the organic sense of the word, which is, after all, what the band are about. At a time when Scottish music is increasingly absorbing features from across the varied worlds of world, rock, jazz and electronic musics, often with the sound amped up high and with pounding percussion, this band, like Rura, eschew electricity and drums, well, up to a point, anyway, proving their instrumental calisthenics more than enough a dynamo to keep an audience alight.

Produced by Inge Thomson, the Fair Isle folktronica accordion whizz who, as well as being a stalwart of Katrine Polwart’s band, has put out a fair few intriguing works herself, she and the band have introduced some subtle nuances to the mix that together add to the growth of the band.

This is immediately apparent, as an uber-low synthesised drone underpins the mutual drone of both sets of pipes, Henderson’s fiddle dancing in unison, ahead a sprightly set of melodies kicking off, Lindsay’s bass, moog and stand-up, throbs both of counterpoint and rhythm. This is The Old Collection, consisting of four two to three hundred year old tunes in a decidedly vibrant flurry. Love song to a wind turbine, anyone? For that is what Revolutions is, a new song, written and sung by band guitarist, Ewan Robertson, his James Taylor-esque timbre a warm buzz, paired whistles buoying the current, and it is a great start.

Henderson is next up with Eadar An Dà Bhraigh, another new song, in Gaelic, and written by her brother, Ewen, currently fiddleman for Mànran. To celebrate the rediscovery that woodland is an ecosystem worth the sustaining, this too benefits from the whistles of McDonagh, and long term member, Calum McCrimmon. Lindsay’s bass, and I am sorry should you tire of this statement, is just, plainly and simply put, superlative.

Bròg To The Future begs the question as to what a bròg might be. A quick Google tells me shoe or boot, hence, every day’s a school day, brogues, it referring here to a massive roadside boulder, Clach nam Bròg, between Poolewe and Gairloch, where locals, on their way to church in Gairloch, would stop to put on their shoes. A trio of tunes, Henderson named the set so to commemorate the Fridays For Future climate activists walk, that she and Robertson took part in, with their daughter, during COP26 in Glasgow. Three tunes that segue neatly, the third being by McDonagh, giving his uilleans some air. Background effects from Thomson add to the atmosphere, along with some light percussion.

Fàil Ì Fàil Ò follows, based on a tune learnt from the Cape Breton Gaelic community, and which has the many familiar tropes of a Hebridean waulking song. If that is the most characteristically trad song presented here, the title track is perhaps the least, even if the first of the three pieces is traditional. Some decidedly funky backbeat is applied to this ancient air, showing McCrimmon hasn’t forgotten the fusion adventures of his own, and only, solo album, Man’s Ruin, 2009. Moving into two (mostly) instrumentals, one apiece from he and McDonagh, with some analog synth from Keir Long lurking the undergrowth, it shows how far the last track is from this, these green shoots proving both invigorating and nourishing.

The mood glides back for Lochanside, a lively ballad, but the mix of the acoustic is again leavened with some low level electronic drone that makes all the difference. Verses taken by Robertson, the harmony vocals of the husband and wife in the chorus are rich and well balanced, all the more as the full band become a vocal ensemble. Dear Green Place is one of the names by which Glasgow is given, the name itself a derivation from the Gaelic for green hollow, so Dear Green is a play on that, two tunes, one to celebrate Glasgow and the second the world’s largest secure seed vault, in Svalberd. The Glagow tune, by Henderson is a bouncy delight, with some gorgeous bass runs from Lindsay, especially as it starts, before electronic percussion strikes beckon in the transfer into his own Frøvelv, which continues in as joyous a direction.

The penultimate track is another McCrimmon composition, John Mackenzie’s March, in honour of the late Skye piping icon. Starting as a delicate song, Robertson here strikes up on an electric guitar, the abrasive slash of his chordplay proving just the right bed for the majestic entry of McCrimmons highland pipes, which play in harmony alongside Henderson’s fiddle, Thomson adding further none too obtrusive beats. 

Sensing something special had maybe been left on the hob till last, the closing track, which marries thoughtful observations allied to a powerfully gentle melody, with both words and music from the hand of McCrimmon, proves to be exactly that. Stemming from his lockdown gaze into deserted city streets, and building steadily, this has all the makings of a classic, and could be the highlight of the album. Which proves and encapsulates quite the quality of this collective.

Although they have all the chops of their contemporaries, rather than showy bravadaccio performance, they are content to allow the songs, words and music, to be the focus. To be able to play it all this well doesn’t need signposting or signalling, it just is.

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