Friday 24 October 2014


CD Review

In the Wake of Neil Gunn

Take a life threatening disease, a fairly obscure author's book, one multi-instrumentalist and a pretty old school method of producing an album from the late 70s throw them into a studio and what would you end up with?

Mike Vass who has been on a musical and nautical journey
Well one permutation is Mike Vass' "concept" album In the Wake of Neil Gunn, there's the 70s reference out of the way, the rest will hopefully become clear in the reading.
This album was born out of a potential tragedy because it began with Vass lying seriously ill in hospital with Lyme's Disease.
The disease is a nasty affair passed on by the bite of ticks who have previously bitten an infected mammal such as mice, deer or even birds. 
Once in the bloodstream of a human it can cause muscle and joint pain and neurological problems.
Being an enthusiastic sailor and outdoor type, the section of society most at risk, talented Scottish musician Vass was laid low. It was during this time he was given a book written by Neil Gunn a fellow marine adventurer who wrote about his voyage sailing around the west coast of Scotland in the 1930s. Thus we come right up to date with the album which is inspired by Vass following in Gunn's wake and turning the nautical journey into a musical one.
Vass, from Nairn, has a classical bent and an impressive track record as a musician and has even turned his hand at producing, a talent he exercised on this album along with Iain Hutchinson.
This instrumental offering isn't one for folk or acoustic purists it contains elements which are reminiscent of Pink Floyd and early Roxy Music and includes electronica. 
There are still strong elements of the folk world in there with traditional instruments very much in evidence but this collection has a very eclectic mix of sounds some of which harks back to Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.
Vass at the wheel of his boat
As you would expect from a CD which is, in some ways, a straightforward journal of a sailing trip, it begins with Vass' boat lying in harbour anchored but preparing to set sail.
Vass' guitar takes centre stage in the opening track, Settled in Clay, and you get a sense of the ship sitting in the calm waters of Duntulm but with Jennifer Port on the oboe you also feel the pace pick up as everyone begins to hurriedly make sure everything is checked, double checked and fully functional for what lies ahead. Eventually the strings tell you the ship is moving out slowly to tackle the waters around the Inner Hebrides. There is an ominous sound to the opening of Sphere Music which includes the frantic and slightly scary sound of the ship's radio spitting out a repetitive message which, unless you listen intently, you can never quite decipher, and is something you would expect more on a Floyd album than anywhere else. Once again the oboe is prominent amongst the electronic sounds as the ship is in full flight. There is that sense of movement but the music keeps a light mood to the proceedings.
The brooding sound is back and building for Fused Dark and there is an undertone which is almost mirroring the human heartbeat. Hamish Napier's flute playing brings in a lighter tone but you always feel there is something looming on the horizon as the pseudo heartbeats carry on throughout.
The ominous voice of the coastguard breaks into the run making you aware that the fusion of music has picked up the warning. The flute music becomes more frantic and moves from being a light dance to almost a cry for help.
You can almost sense the concentration as the mariner forces himself to keep his wits about him.
Having come through the storm now is the time to enjoy the fact you are in the open water, you are on a boat and as free as the fishes or gulls to go where you please.
Neil Gunn
Napier's flute and Iain Hutchinson's piano give that sense of just enjoying being on the sea, the spray refreshing your pallor and the winds cleansing your thoughts and stroking through your hair.
Vass' guitar does tend to create a feeling of  Ratty and Mole gliding down the river rather than navigating the Inner Hebrides at the tip of the Atlantic Ocean.
Cold Iron is about the ship itself and the mandolin, bass and guitar combine to create the natural sounds of the ship moving and flexing its nautical sinews as it cuts through the sea.
There is something very mechanical about the sound, almost producing the jerky movements you would associate with Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times or the electronic robotic sounds of the 80s.
The abrupt cut is contrasted with the gently guitar opening of Quiet Voices which creates a feeling of tranquillity, of a sailor sat on deck, pipe in hand watching the gulls dive and skim the water and the occasional seal perhaps popping a whiskered nose out of the brine.
The orchestral feel from the Cairn String Quartet is juxtaposed with the light picking of Vass on the guitar. An almost digitised sounding pizzicato opens Heave and Roll which is the most electronic sounding of the album and is close to a drum & bass rhythm that is offset by the violins. It's hard to make a link between the sound and the sea, it sounds more like a track that never quite made it on to the final cut of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells album and doesn't sit easy within the flow of the narrative.
The longest track on the album, Blue Fields of Paradise at times feels like it has been created by, in this case Southerners, although they are from the north West, Harp and a Monkey.
The album
Here Vass tries to recreate that very basic call and affinity mankind feels for the sea whether it's something primordial or womb like and to some degree it's really a blank canvass, a little like looking at a painting where the artist created his own meaning or sense of verisimilitude and yet there is enough room for the viewer, or in this case listener, to conjure up their own images and interpretations.
There is a definite onomatopoeic feel to the oboe tapping out the Morse code of The Lock Keeper on what is the shortest track while Vass' fiddle flows up and down as a keen reminder that the sea is still there, undulating and never sleeping.
The final track One Common Bond may be a little difficult to get on board with if you live in a landlocked location but most people have either travelled or visited the sea at some time in their life either by choice, destiny or necessity and, like all elements of nature, it creates a range of emotions from dread, to admiration, to awe, to security, constancy and sense of belonging.
Vass never quite gives it the big finish although once again the oboe is prominent and carried under by the growling of the bass and musically, just like in real life, suddenly the journey is at an end.
This is an unusual album and one which is likely to polarise listeners. It is a very personal journey and therein lies the danger as it's possible a lot of people won't get it but conversely it is like listening to an old mariner recounting his exploits of life on the sea, and considering the journey the inspirational Gunn and the creator Vass made for that alone it's worth taking the time to listen.

In the Wake of Neil Gunn is out now on Unroofed Records

The Mike Harding Folk Show

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