Assynt – Where From Here: Album Review

And it isn’t a question, either. Sterling second from the virtuoso stalwarts, individually and collectively award winners in their fields.

Release date: 24th February 2023

Label: Garthland Records

Format: CD / digital


It seeming barely five minutes since we featured Graham MacKenzie’s album, The Dawning, yet here we are, less than a month later, with the release of his band’s latest recording. If nothing else, this answers the question as to what had happened to them. Assynt has not been exactly prolific; debut, Road To The North came out in 2018. Not that they have been idle. Fiddle man MacKenzie has had his burgeoning solo career, Shedden, who plays pipes and whistles, has been largely building his name in teaching and tutoring, whereas Innes White has quietly become one of the most in-demand guitarists on the Scottish circuit. He has graced recordings and live performances for a host of established performers, John McCusker and Ross Ainslie for two, as well as being a member of neo-trad supergroup, Staran.

Joined here, as with their first, by Charlie Stewart on double bass, the sound has a round and rich quality. Undoubtedly this is music from the tradition, but there is almost a clinical meticulousness applied, which, without removing the soul or the passion, applies a knowingly modern polish to the material. Little here in the way of showboating or showcasing, with most of the highs coming with the geometrically assembled ensemble play.

Assynt House welcomes the listener with a trio of upbeat tunes, which dip you gently into their scheme, a pair of established tunes from the repertoire, sandwiching one of MacKenzie’s. From the start they show a light touch, the fiddle dancing evocatively with the pipes, each balanced equally in the mix, whilst White and Stewart build a solid fortification beneath them. The three tunes blend near seamlessly, if turning on the proverbial sixpence, all this avoiding the bombast that can occasionally come with the highland bagpipe. There is a delicious segment in the third tune, Donald MacLeod’s Traditional, where MacKenzie weaves a meshwork of bowing underneath Shedden before they join together toward the close.

A grand start, auguring well, that promise met with a trio of tunes from MacKenzie, together entitled Gordon Stewarts. Starting simply enough with fiddle and guitar, White adds more than just rhythm, ahead of Shedden’s whistle joining the lilting melody. Listen hard, though, there being something else shimmering below the surface, a delicate judder of discreet electronica, just sufficient to be noticed before the tune changes direction, the whistle and fiddle jousting like a pair of young deer at play. A simple insistent bass line becomes gradually more complex, eventually playing the same lines. Before you know it pipes have replaced the whistle and there is a sense of muted triumph, again with the bottom line as worth listening to as the top. I can’t see synthesizer in the credits, but my additional info, and my ears, tell me it is there.

More from MacKenzie next, perhaps explaining the need for an album of his own, such is his current proclivity: St. Andrews Drive. This is a slow air, simple bow strokes introducing fingerpicked electric guitar, that itself a pleasing change from expectation, ahead of whistle taking the lead, both over a ‘scape of a background drone, either layered strings or synth. Fiddle gently jumps aboard, before the two gracefully conjoin. Lovely, especially as it dips back to White’s guitar, alone, to close the tune.

The traditional Gaelic song Nighean Donn Nan Gobhar is given a glossy polish, the three instrumentalists concocting to play the same tune together, both jointly and severally. And to pursue that legal reference, with a liability both vicarious and joyful. The subsequent triad of tunes, The Source, starts with yet another Mackenzie composition, before Shedden takes responsibility for the next two parts. Starting at a trot, the whistle and fiddle take to the front, before a swift acceleration, with extra fuel to the fire from Stewart’s bass, and the sense that there is more to come. Indeed, guitar chords come steeping in, adding further layers, the rhythm more insistent by the bar. A change of key is actually all it takes, taking The Ford Fleet through Just Shows You and into The Source proper, and it all makes sense. I don’t know if the reference is a stream through the seasons or just going upstream, maybe down, but that works for me.

The New Normal is perhaps where they break furthest away from more traditional expectations. A complex and angular melody, with a whiff of a (slight) jazz-inflected ambience,it is a fitting high water mark, sitting, as it does, at the centre of the album. Sawing fiddle opens with a whistle making shapes over the top, MacKenzie then breaking into a melody, which he then shares with Shedden on pipes. By playing in unison rather than harmony, this gives one of the Assynt characteristics a good focus. A short tune, the textures through the undersurface are as important as the main theme, so when Shedden breaks free, with pipes all askirl, it has been a heartlifting ride. Faskally, which pairs The Lights Of Faskally and Pointing East, starts with an elegant game of swapsie between MacKenzie’s fiddle and Shedden’s whistle, White keeping the score. With some unison play acting as cover, the pipes start warming up, the second tune a faster gallop, the pipes staying away until again they start to growl, to herald the end of another fine pair of MacKenzie writes.

Shedden now shines for three of his, together collected as Rescues. His pipes somehow seem to be sweeter and purer than many other players manage, and here is now the opportunity for him to play upfront. Shiel Brae feels a call to the clans, gradual layering of synths/strings giving atmospheric contrast, White and Stewart keeping the ground steady. Sandy’s Trip To Glasgow is then more of a romp, suggesting it quite a journey, the repetition, as layers add and drop truly effective, more so as MacKenzie slots in. With White’s guitar strumming against the rhythm, Rarity’s Rescues begs the question whether Hannah and why a rescue required?

The title track, following, now feels more a lament, or does until the entry of White and Stewart who give more cross-textural accompaniment, and it is a memorable and fitting air, from Shedden, to name the whole project after. Realising you can’t end on a plaintive note, the final track has you back on your feet, a set of, I guess, jigs, Alive In Astley. Unison play carries the first section, Ally Park, before the more inventive Between The Drives, which brings back some counter-current arrangements to accentuate the lead player. (And, yay, sees White get his first writing credit!) Rolling downhill to the end is the fluid and intricate Alive In Astley, which brings together all the best of the elements decribed earlier into a compact essence of Assynt. A worthy end to a worthy album that cannot help but put this trio (plus one) back on the map. A word should be added around the sympathetic production, facilitating so well the glow; recorded by Scott Wood, no mean piper in his own right, with assistance from White at the mixing desk, the overall production in the hands of the trio themselves.

The band is on tour in Germany any time now, let’s see ’em back in the UK soon.

The New Normal would be as good a taster as any, so here it is:

Assynt online: website / facebook / instagram

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