Westward The Light – Flow Country: Album Review

Potent and untampered with ensemble trad from Scotland, as modern as it is old, old as it is modern.

Release date: 31st March 2023

Label: Braw Sailing Records

Format: CD / digital (bandcamp)

Scottish trad band Westward the Light. L-R Sally Simpson, Joseph Peach, Charlie Grey and Owen Sinclair.

Yet another name new to me, such is the torrent of material emerging from the lochs and glens of Scotland, but, mea culpa, this is actually their second release; the band has been in existence some five years and it is three since their eponymous debut release. But a quick clock of the names of the band membership invokes some sudden recognition in the names Peach and Grey, Joseph and Charlie respectively. Avid readers of this site may recall they being a namecheck in the recent review of fiddle maestro Duncan Chisholm’s Black Cuillin. And he doesn’t hook up with any old Tam, Dick or Hamish for his records, so let due note be taken and appropriate awe applied.

Grey and Peach, who also perform as a well-received duo, offer up fiddle, both orthodox and the Nordic variant of hanrdanger and piano/harmonium, in that order, and are joined by Sally Simpson, on a second fiddle and viola, and Owen Sinclair’s guitar. The album was recorded live, in a single room, so as to offer the max of a live and intimate experience. Their ‘thing’, increasingly important as all manner of fusion and fissures delve to adapt the tradition, is to play it straight, no gimmicks, no chaser. Which makes almost for a change. Except it is. This is no white heather club, reeking of shortbread and tartan, and, in the same way as malt whisky takes itself forward, with distilleries describing new ‘expressions’, well, this is how Westward The Light too describe themselves, as a new expression. And that works for me! Slainte mhath!

The Rearrangement Reel opens with some brief intentful strums of guitar, before a brace of fiddles stride in with a rousing melody, piano chording beneath for balance. At 1.34 it becomes more nuanced, with the two fiddlers playing different directions, the piano a more delicate addition now. Finding again the common ground, it all gradually meets back and comes together for a sudden detour into an even more rousing reel, piano mimicking the strings. O’er Bogey to The Humours of Carrigaholt, for those who need to know, or, like me, just enjoy seeing and hearing the word bogey. Horizontal Man clears that deck with a majestic piano opening, the strings now floating, like hawks on the wind, hardanger adding a deep rich and glorious harmony. A tremendous air, one of those that has ancestors roused and walking on your soul, raising the small hairs. Both these two tracks, despite the lagging sense of familiarity, are Peach compositions, believe it or not.

Ceilidh time now, for track three, Niel Gow’s Style. Gow – the spelling of Niel deliberate, for Neil Gow was an early 20th century racehorse – was the Duncan Chisholm of his day, in the 1700s, and this is a set of five, as it says, in his style, some written by Grey. None of your wild careering about, mind, as this, in the first section, at least, is strict tempo, with no room for any trodden toes. The piano is exquisitely and regimentally executed. Gow may have pulled a face, however, at all the frenzied note bending in the second section, and the hint of syncopation, one of many examples where the contrasting styles and intruments add lustre to this group. I too pulled a face, but only of wonder. And so it goes, with pounding piano beckoning in the finale, and all it off it buoys to a glorious conclusion. O’Farrell’s (Return To Limerick) then gives another complete change, with a drone of strings and picked guitar, and high chimes of piano, to beckon in a slowly meandering slip-jig, suggesting the return was by sea, the main theme carried by duetting fiddle and viola. A traditional tune, they do it proud. The piano gives the necessary weight to ensure all arrived in port without incident. An anchor, I suppose.

Sally Simpson now throws her composing hand in the ring, with a set of paired tunes, together called Good Days. The first part, Steven Hallmark’s is almost new agey, if only for a moment, ahead of her steering in a delicate cadence to the structure, harmony fiddle alongside, after the first few bars. Proceeding first like a march, it takes a piano and fiddle interlude to then switch the compass, the tune becoming livelier as the piano becomes more central to the direction of flow. The eventual few bars sees ties loosened and all four bending into the joy of it. After that, it is time for trad, again, with a bevy of tunes, collectively Dornoch Links. Starting with Tha Brògan Úr Agam A-Nochd, possibly familiar from a song sung by Julie Fowlis, the titular tune is the filling in the sandwich, which is then completed by Bodaich Odhar Hoghaigearraidh, another song from Fowlis’ repertoire. Recognised or not, both are typically Hebridean airs, with the less dreamy mainland provenance of the middle section, a march. The interplay of strings, strummed and bowed, with the piano, is effective and memorable. Indeed, the climax of the third section is so tight it seems hard to appreciate it is only the four of them. The next set, written also in part by Grey, comes with the intriguing name of Castle Coeffin. And there is one, of course, ruins standing on an island in Loch Linnhe, the feel of the first segment suggesting the sacking thereof, a build followed by the almost aggressive underpinning of piano and guitar. Who needs bass or drums with these guys?! The second part is a celebratory romp, the third maybe more reflective. A terrific set, regardless of my whimsy.

C Jig is a further medley of tunes, the first, Unknown Jig, being an opportunity for Sinclair to show off his play in other than a purely rhythmic mode, and, together with the piano, is a thoughtful piece, shards of hardanger giving additional texture, as the dual fiddles interplay. Little obvious link for The Lads Of Mull or Elizabeth’s Big Coat(!), the accompanying part, but they hurtle off anyway, enjoyably enough, one after the other, especially for the second, where Peach allows himself to veer off emphatically from the otherwise strict parameter of the tune. (Just who was Elizabeth and what was her big coat is not explained, but I gather it is of Cape Breton origin.) Closer, The Braes Of Rannoch is a final opportunity to compare and contrast the different bowed intrumentation and to relish the harmonies they can apply to each other. The piano is the ballast here, and it is an altogether mystic and moody piece of orchestration to close the proceedings with. The harsher and sharper sound of the hardanger melds beautifully with the sweeter fiddle. The shortest tune here, it ends things on a majestic note.

Well, if I didn’t know these guys beforehand, I do now. As stated, my problem, and I have dealt with my earlier omission, courtesy bandcamp. If this, too, is your introduction, I hope you wil be as impressed and enamoured by this second release as was I. It is an impressively vibrant declaration of the purity of traditional forms. (Finally, should you wonder, the Flow Country is an area of rolling peatland between Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of Scotland, miles from any road, to the northwest end of Loch Shin. A fact to impress your friends with.)

Here is Good Days, which has been pre-released as a single:

Westward The Light online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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