Friday 11 December 2015


CD Review

The Hebridean Sessions

There are occasions when you could accuse Scottish traditional music and particularly bagpipe music of being too harsh, loud and aesthetically tooth grating but none of that applies to Daimh and their new album.

Celtic super-group Daimh
It would be easy to use an analogy and call this a great single malt of music but that wouldn't do it. Like the majority of the whisky most of us drink, the album is actually one of the finer blends.
Angus MacKenzie, Gabe McVarish, Ross Martin, Murdo Cameron and Ellen MacDonald have put together every shade of Gaelic music including the incredibly subtle, the bordering-on-spiritual and the wonderfully evocative sound of the Hebrides. To add to their achievements they have recently won Scottish Folk Band of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards known affectionately as the Trads. The tracks on this album carry the essence of the northern islands of Mull, Skye and South Uist where they were recorded, so both the musicians and listeners would get a deeper understanding of the genetics of Scottish/Gaelic music.
Opening with Locheil's Away this mixture of quickstep and reels has that sharp wail of the drones but MacKenzie's skill takes the slight edge off it showing just how versatile and multi-layered the sound of the pipes can be, especially when married to Martin's guitar and Cameron's mandola. It's a wonderful introduction to anyone who has a prejudice against the pipes. These don't wail they serenade.
This is followed by the beautifully lilting sound of Dhannsamaid Le Ailean where you first get to hear MacDonald's died-in-the-wool folk singing. Along with McDonald's voice there is a very special blend of pipes, whistle, fiddle and mandola which is as carefully crafted together as the whiskies which come from the north.
Ellen MacDonald
McDonald has a depth to her voice which bounces alongside the instruments holding her own against the strong sounds which envelope her.
O Fair A-Nall Am Botal gives McDonald a further chance to show the range of her singing skills. The song starts almost like a Gaelic blues but quickly slips into a minimalist sound as her vocals take centre stage. Her singing has a lightness to it but there is always a tinge of brooding melancholy in her voice.
Instantly recognisable as traditional Gaelic Bog An Lochan wonderfully shows off McVarish's understated fiddle playing. McVarish grew up in California but you would never know it from his playing. Even though his playing is not overpowering he takes pride of place with Cameron keeping an even lower profile on his guitar until they are both upstaged by MacKenzie's drones. With the opening of Pattern Day Jigs it's hard to know where the fiddle begins and the accordion ends, as again Cameron and McVarish race along in perfect sync, this time being hurried along by MacKenzie on the whistle to make a really enjoyable whole which shows the subtlety of their musings. Cuir A Nall gives little away to start with but when the repetitive sound of MacDonald's singing slides in gently you realise the musicians have paved the way for the singing perfectly. By now you realise, as a band, how much they have captured the vast range of sound, emotions and traditions which are as individual as the mountains, valleys and lakes which make up the highlands that have been such an inspiration. MacDonald's voice builds up apace like a steam train snaking through the region until like the mist across the lochs, it suddenly disappears. Gur E Mo Ghille Dubh Dhonn is one of those songs where, unless you know the language expertly, you have no idea what MacDonald is singing about but nevertheless you are glad she is singing it. The album has these wonderfully quirky symbols, rather like emoticons on the web, whereby they tell you not only the content but the amount of particular content too. For instance this one is about drink, a boat, a child and heartbreak.
Harris Dance is a beautifully lilting tune led by MacKenzie on the whistle and highlighted by McVarish on fiddle along with Martin and Cameron before they step back and allow the latter loose with the bellows. On this track, more than any others,  they have the blend of traditional and contemporary about as near to a single malt as you can get. It's the contemporary which kicks off Oran an Tombaca the distinct strumming of the guitar overlaid quite strongly with whistle before MacDonald's voice comes dancing in for the song about tobacco. The beauty of this track is that it's a very simple tune which is executed wonderfully with all of the musical elements weaved into a harmonious strand, much like the tweed or tartan associated with the region and, once it's finished, you can see how the individual strands have combined to make whole.
The new album
With a similar intro to the previous, the final track uses the guitar again to lead the way for the whistle to bring in Dunrobin where McVarish seems to be having some fun on the fiddle before it all comes to an end. Not to be outdone MacKenzie makes his presence felt on the pipes with Martin keeping it all moving along at a brisk pace.
If you thought all Scottish/Gaelic traditional or highland music sounded the same then this album should change your mind. The collection of musicians who have come together to produce this musical menu is impressive and with the tracks being recorded on three different isles the music has captured the individual spirit of Skye, Mull and South Uist. So if you can't get there yourself then this album will allow you to take a musical journey into the far north and the land of breathtaking scenery.

The Hebridean Sessions is available now from Goat Island Music through the band's website.

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