Gnoss – Stretching Skyward : Album Review

Gnoss not only stretch for the sky, they are flying.

Release Date: 12th May 2023

Label: Blackfly Records

Format: CD / digital

It actually takes a heck of a lot to stand out from the crowd, in the busy marketplace of Scottish trad roots music, with every island and highland village seemingly awash with bands, each with their own spin on it. And, when many of those spins, however vibrant, turn out to be more of the same, your palate just yearns for something a bit different. Gnoss could just turn out to be your boys. Around for a wee while now, we’ve caught them before, this third album sees them hone their precision tools that much closer to an instantly recognisable stand-out-in-the-crowd sound. Although resplendent with fiddles and flutes, make no mistake, it is the big, big sound of chiming guitar that marks ‘em out. Shhh, don’t say it out loud, but at times they could be (whisper) the Scottish Band, reincarnated, such is the widescreen vista, with a fair few U2isms thrown in for good measure. Not that this takes away for a moment their own youthful verve and dynamic. Plus you never got fiddle or whistle in R****g.

Talking of, the band consists of Aidan Moodie, guitar, Graham Rorie, fiddle, mandolin and tenor guitar, Connor Sinclair, flute and whistles, with Craig Baxter on percussion. Moodie and Sinclair share vocals. Eagle-eyed readers will recall at least a couple of these names, with Moodie moonlighting also as a member of Mànran, and Rorie prolific in his own right and in a duo with Rory Matheson. Lest anyone feel Sinclair and Baxter the runts of the litter, the former is a former piping prodigy, in demand for both teaching and sessions, being on the staff of the National Piping Centre, and the latter, besides also a prodigious sessions history, is a member of TRIP, that pan-Celtic fusion band and festival favourite. Slot in the information that their combined ages barely dents a hundred, if that, and weep. Their talent is sickening. For this album they are joined by that bastion of the trad-influenced bottom end, Breabach’s James Lindsay on basses, acoustic and electric.

Stretching Skyward opens up with Stroma, a muscular instrumental that celebrates the island of that name, off the Caithness coast, up towards Moodie and Rorie’s Orkney origins. Hammering out from the start, it is evocative of the elements, of waves crashing on a rocky foreshore, fiddle and whistle driving through with excitement and passion. Lindsay and Baxter clatter away in the basement, and it is a promising beginning. A clapping and bodhran mid section is maybe the eye in the storm, Sinclair sending his whistle soaring, like a sea eagle. Scott Wood, the Skerryvore man, has his ever-reliable hand on the production rudder, showing off some of the tricks he has picked up along the way, such as neat echo delays to add additional atmosphere, and effects that ape the sounds of the local elements. A song up next, Moodie’s Hamnavoe, strummed acoustic and lots of chorus pedal on the electric, a tale of Orcadian lore, with a rousing and anthemic wordless repeated chorus. The to and fro of the juddering rhythm section dips in and out and this is a masterful rock song, let alone folk. I’m in. Moodie is the main singer, his voice a rich broth, somewhere between Ivan and Kris Drever. (Must be in the Orcadian water!)

Whistle, and, I think, flute, double-tracked, leads the way for Christine’s, with that melodic cadence bound up and embedded in the meticulous rhythmic engine the band are driving, especially the chunky guitar picking. This is big sky music; remember that? Honey Wine may, as it starts, give you double take, having you expect Marc Cohn to come crashing in: walking in Melvich, maybe? Of course it isn’t, that thought banished, as Moodie begins to sing. A mighty chorus follows the verses, the guitar motif imprinting in your ears; this could be from middle America, a road song, without the references being clearly far closer to home. The fiddle sounds like a thousand, broad sweeps like chemtrails in the sky. A song inspired by the travelling people of Scotland, it comes on like an epic. i’m going to call it tectonic twang.

Sticking with travelling, Drovers is next, a tune that commemorates the herdsmen, driving their cattle, 30,000 at a time, down from the hills, 200 miles to market. Flute leads the way, pairing up with fiddle, becoming gradually and gently more intricate. Another tune you will find yourself humming, uncertain why, in a day or two, walking, maybe, yourself to market, possibly with your dog. Keefa Hill is another instrumental, the Gnoss template of repeating guitar figures now a given, this time for the fiddle to fly away from. The percussion and bass in the second half of this is as far from fiddle de dee as you can get, acting as a catalyst for the further paired flute and fiddle frenzy it closes with..

God’s Land, another from the pen of Moodie, is a further majestic tale. In fact, all the songs here, bar one, are written by this gifted songsmith, with the instrumentals coming largely from Sinclair and Rorie. It tells the disastrous story of how a ship full of Covenanters were sent to slavery in the New World. Sadly, the ship only got as far as Orkney, before being driven onto rocks and wrecked, with most on board going under. The contrast between the lyric and the vivid clang of the guitars is Gnoss in a bottle. Followed by Audrey’s, a sublime fiddle offering, that magic moment when the the flute slots in being one to remember. And all the while there is the 3D chug of the rhythm section. Pedals and treatments add textures that would have you swear keyboards are involved, but they are affirmedly not. Straight off into another instrumental, Vore Tullye, with yet another contagious guitar figure to marvel at, Rorie on fire here like an Orcadian Hank B. Recounting, in sound, the tale of a battle between two sea beasties, the marvellously named Sea Mither, a force for good, and Teran, the embodiment of winter. One is that guitar, the other a racing fiddle. Which is which and which the winner? You decide.

Dirt and Bone slows things down, with a sense of wide prairies swagger, the tenor guitar sounding close to a tenor banjo, and the Americana stylings apt for narrative, with whistle evoking the trains whistles. Moodie’s voice is here as dusty and dry as the view. As if picking up on that transatlantic vibe, the last track is a cover. Gillian Welch’s Hard Times may seem an odd choice and, were the band solely intent on their instrumental pizazz, it might be. But, as with the earlier iteration of Rura, Adam Holmes still present, the plaintive and thought-provoking songs of Moodie give a pleasing contrast to the livelier fare. This Welch song slips alongside his compositions so unobtrusively as to sound his own, no small feat, aided, clearly, by the exquisite setting gifted his bandmates. I like the idea of an album ending on the quizzical rather than an exhausting full stop, and I like this album. Very much.

Here’s Dirt And Bone:

Gnoss online website / facebook / twitter / instagram

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