Dàimh – Sula : Album Review

Sleekit’ blockbluster sneaks in and sidelines the competition, in an astonishing tour de trad.

Release Date: 2nd June 2023

Label: Goat Island Music

Format: CD / Digital

Gannet sells it so short, don’t you think, sula being the old Norse for the sea bird Sula Bassana. Or Northern Gannet. A mighty beast, large and majestic, as at home swooping the skies as it is plundering beneath the surface of the sea for supper. An altogether appropriate name for the ever-evolving Gaelic A team of Dàimh. Given the other commitments of this band and its members, it is excusable to lose sight of the ball, and I confess I hadn’t seen this one coming until it dropped, delighted to latch on, if late, and appease my fiddle and bagpipe hunger on this most welcome of offerings.

Pronounced Dive, rather than any temptation to mistake them for the Streatham born rapper, they have existed since around the new millennium, still with three of the original members on board, Angus McKenzie, Gabe McVarish and Ross Martin. (Names like that might all reek of the Highlands, but the first is from Canada and the second, California, they each making their way from the diaspora to their spiritual home.) Pipes, fiddle and guitar are their tools, in that order, here joined by multi-instrumentalist, Murdo Cameron, mandola and accordion, adept also on pipes and guitar, and Ellen MacDonald on vocals, busy also with Niteworks and Sian. Alasdair White, erstwhile Battlefield Band fiddler, is a newish addition, on second fiddle.

Recorded on Bernara, off Lewis’s wild Atlantic coast, that setting permeates the music, full of, um, weather, wild and warming, all seasons in one day. Or even an hour. Kicking straight off with If It Plays, a strum, a drone and it is straight in, with paired pipes and fiddles, a statement of intent. A couple or so tunes segue and leak into each other, a reminder of just how potent the instrumental music, untampered, of the Gaels can be. A song, Chaidh Mis’ a dh’ Eubhal Imprig, MacDonald’s voice a dream, over a delicate background of guitar and lyrical fiddle. Both McVarish and White add differing textures, some whistle and accordion making for a heady brew. With a maritime feel, and a rolling gait, this is lovely. Dual fiddles then open up for Miss MacGregor’s Traditional Jigs, which sticks to orthodox ceilidh tempos, rather than any look at me mayhem. Whistle dips in, switching to bagpipes, and is that some double bass too? For sure, as guest, Breabach man, James Lindsay always a welcome presence, nails his part. Martin O’Neill is there too, for those paying attention, on bodhran.

T​à​ladh Choinnich Òig is one of those sad and sultry laments, of the sort that Sandy Denny could and would effortlessly deliver, awash with a plaintiveness few can attain. Well, MacDonald can. And does, this song a showstopping pin dropper. Megan Henderson, also from Breabach, adds her second line vocal. More song, then, with Tha Ghaoth an Iar a’ Gobachadh, a further swaying sashay, with, this time, the further additional vocals of Mànran man, Ewen Henderson, joining MacDonald and his sister. The twin fiddles dance carefully in the background, taking different routes toward a similar destination. A third guest vocalist, albeit an alumnus already of the band, Calum Alex MacMillan, is also present, if not here, elsewhere.

PUFF PUFF is a good name for a pipe tune, yes? For that is indeed what it is, a proud and upright peal that takes off after an initial declamation. The band fill in any gap with sensitivity and space, allowing MacKenzie to stretch out. You may have guessed, before now, I am a big fan of this instrument, and this is as good as it gets, firmly imprinting MacKenzie on the list of virtuosi of this mighty instrument. A near unaccompanied, initially, An Dubh Ghleannach follows, the odd chord, a background drone all that is required for MacDonald to launch the song, which gradually build a backing that embeds her voice perfectly, with choral vocals from the aforementioned chorale, and a wistful accordion. When the pipes bleed in, toward the end, it couldn’t get better. To avoid any temptation to sit the next one out, up bursts the ensemble for the energetic Peggy Shrimpy Jonny. Me neither, but it is a wonderfully jaunty number, shuddering along at a fair old tempo, the guest rhythm section adding a degree of attractive wallop. The melody takes a few paths, each more solid than the last, ending in a riot of syncopation, Martin’s guitar in strident punctuation.

The mood changes again, for Altsasaig, a dreamy accordion reverie that fast becomes an earworm, sweeping and swooping like the album’s namesake. Again, the ensemble play is such that there is always plenty going on behind and below, no sense of competition, just a sense of conjunction, all parts equal. And it al has to end in a song, with Laoidh Fhearchair E​ò​ghainn being just that song. Another lament, at least in the mood conveyed, MacDonald is at the top of her game, in a, let’s face it, crowded field. With accordion and then whistle as her surrounding textures, I would defy any listener to not be moved, not least as the fiddles gel in. The instrumentation near drops away for the finale, before a poignant final flourish, with which the whole record ends.

When even their own website calls them a Gaelic supergroup, there is always a risk of hyperbole or of a misplaced aggrandisement. Indeed, it was a phrase I tried to avoid using. Tried. But can’t. It is deserved and, once more, the stakes are raised still higher in Scottish traditional roots derived music. I would also want to add the name of a further superstar, that of the mixer/recording engineer, Barry Reid, not short of making decent music of his own, either.

Hear this, a live TV show from last year, featuring all the current line up, with Dhannsamaid Le Ailean, not actually on the album:

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