Duncan Chisholm – Black Cuillin: Album Review

Moving forward, with new tricks, adding to the splendour of the old, giving the glory of the new.

Release Date: 9th December 2022

Label: Copperfish

Format: CD/digital

I know I said 2022 was done and dusted, but when Duncan Chisholm drops an end-of-year doozy, with little fanfare and without much warning, well, that resolution had to follow all the others. With nary a press release to bolster its birth, it is largely through social media the arrival was announced, and that’s fine, but someone needs to shout about it somewhere! Even if I had to buy it, fan first, scribe second!

Chisholm, if you didn’t know, and, if you didn’t, where have you been, has quietly and unassumingly, grasped the mantle of fiddler supreme in the world of Scottish players, already a powerful and plentiful field. From his early days with Wolfstone back in the 89 into 90s, he was a founder member alongside guitarist Stuart Eaglesham, so when Ivan Drever, father of Kris, left the band, having been seen as the primary focus, Chisholm and Eaglesham kept the band alive for a further three albums. Arguably are still keeping the band alive, it still an intermittent presence, playing a trio of European festivals last summer. But it is his solo output that has indelibly stamped his presence, with a masterful triad of albums, Farrar, Canaich and Affric, between 2008 and 2012, his 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively, hauntingly beautiful ensemble instrumental music, richly evocative of his highland homelands. A live album followed ahead of the surprise of 2018’s Sandwood, more in the same mould, if with subtle changes of innovation and progression being absorbed onto his palette. All the while he has continued to play, most frequently with Julie Fowlis, as musical director of her band, and on frequent solo outings, usually plucking the cream of the crop of players to accompany him. (Such a show was at Wickham, in 2021, mentioned here.) He also appears on many a record by other players and other bands, enlivening and addding his own magic to theirs. Whether this release is seen as a continuation of his earlier work ,or a standalone, matters not a jot, it just begs to be heard.

Black Cuillin is an integral part of the Cuillin range on Skye, the wildest bit in both geography and meteorological temperament. Chisholm describes the album as “a dream journey through this landscape over a day and a night”, expanding on this idea in an explanatory essay, included on the disc packaging. Ever the most generous of performers, he has brought together a veritable who’s who of the Trad Awards scene, happy to let each and any have a go at stealing his thunder, few managing. Probable prides of place go to Ross Ainslie and Hamish Napier; most of the music, largely new tunes, has been composed by them, together with Chisholm, as well as their contributions of whistles and keyboards. Donald Shaw adds some additional keyboards and one tune, with band stalwart Jarlath Henderson also present, with Patsy Reid adding her contrasting style of fiddle elsewhere. Add in the electric bass and guitar of Ross Hamilton, the ex-Texas man and a regular across Chisholm’s output, ex-Runrig man Malcolm Jones, the bòdhran of Martin O’Neill and it is clear this is no ordinary crew, to which the sumptuous string arrangements of Greg Lawson add even greater sheen.

Is it any good, then? Opening with the title track, eerie mountain sounds beckon in some atmospheric piano chords, the fiddle then sweeping in majestically, a sea eagle flying high on the turbulent slipstream. The string section slots in alongside and it makes for a sumptuous start. Ainslie’s whistle pairs up with Chisholm to repeat the main theme. It is short but the scene is well and truly set, appetites whetted, so when it blends into On The Winds Of Chaos Born, the listener is ready for the brisk change of tempo. Like the weather, it has turned on a sixpence, with a lively canter jiving and jigging through the peaks. The piano is now giving a near percussion role, the whistle/fiddle combo swirling both together and around each other, the additional strings providing broad enveloping strokes. Another swift sidestep and the piano-driven To The High Mountains sets off in an opposite direction, with an almost funky overtone cutting through. Some is-it-whistle-is-it-uillean bursts through delightfully, but it is Napier’s electric piano that remains the focus.

Beneath The Fortress offers a more thoughtful episode, fiddle first, then whistle, then strings, all billowing over the piano, which offers a grounding from which the others can fly. The melody offers frequent moments which can tear through any emotional protection, with some electronic percussion adding further bedrock to accentuate the contrasts that meld so well together. A first tune other than from Chisholm/Ainslie/Napier follows, Iain McFarlane’s Mìorbhail nam Bheinn, aka Marvel Of The Mountains, and, bar some drones in the background, is a near solo from Chisholm, eerie and enticing both. A gorgeous tune by the erstwhile Blazin’ Fiddles member, it shows just how Chisholm is listening to his peers. Back to C-A-N for Deep Air/No Masters, this starts as another percussive piano extravaganza, the by now familiar fiddle-whistle joust some metres above, initially in unison. A lurch up the gears and into the second section, bòdhran clattering in the background, pipes squeezing in, the build relentless. Turn it up!!!

Shaw, the Capercaillie maestro now takes over on the piano, his tone lighter and gentler for Dusk On The Cuillin, a tune written by Chisholm in collaboration with Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach, an up-and-coming fiddle and piano duo. It paints perfectly a gentle wind down after the elements have shaken you sideways, perhaps as you relax with a dram in the celebrated Seumas’ Bar at the Sligachan, at the footdrop of the mountain. It is electric guitar here, Jones, that sits alongside Chisholm’s fiddle, the different tones making for a lesser heard marriage, that elsewhere might have been dealt by highland pipes. I like it. As do I the following The Blue Cuillin Of The Island, which has more pronounced electronic beats to give a pebble and ripple percussive effect. I can’t recall if electronica has ever been embraced much on earlier works, but it works here and works well, especially as the strings wash in. A lovely track.

Constellation is the Shaw composition, he still at the piano, and is a delicate chamber piece, in turns mournful and majestic. The interplay between Chisholm, the string section and, I suspect, Reid, is a further highlight and one that lingers. Before The Sun is a solo Napier composition, unsurprisingly featuring piano again as the instrument to the fore , with a string arrangement this time by Shaw, and is another gentler piece, the strings here on just the right edge of sweet. When solo fiddle breaks through, it sounds the deeper tones of viola, so perhaps Reid again. Had enough calm? Good, because The Razor’s Edge is back to display the capricious microclimate of the Inner Hebrides, using lashings of Jarlath Henderson’s glorious Uillean pipes to lead the way, the string section sawing away like nobody’s business, the guitars also busy in the background, adding chords of power. (Power chords sounds sorta wrong, sorry.) To close proceedings, what could be better than one of Phil Cunningham’s graceful airs, the answer being one of Phil Cunningham’s graceful airs, When The Snow Melts. It provides and the ensemble provide the perfect end to a record that can certainly hold its own with Chisholm’s earlier canon, with, as commented upon, sufficient new to make it more than just more of the same. Commended, and some.

Want to hear The Blue Cuillin Of The Island?

Duncan Chisholm will premiere Black Cuillin at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections, with a seven piece band plus string section, on 2/2/23, at the Royal Concert Hall, Sauchiehall Street.

Duncan Chisholm online: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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