Tuesday 22 March 2016


CD Review


Globetrotting band Breabach touched base long enough to capture their journeys, along with the traditions and musical styles they encountered and put them down on an album. Astar is the acclaimed band's fifth studio offering and is as eclectic as it is rich in sound.

The five piece band of Calum MacCrimmon, Ewan Robertson, James Mackenzie, Megan Henderson and James Lindsay combine their strong Scottish traditions with the cultures and music of far flung lands. So much that Astar is akin to a musical atlas.
Astar opens with a track from MacKenzie inspired by his time in Norway when he ran a marathon in land of The Midnight Sun. The track opens with anticipation and gently picks up using the fiddle, whistles and the strumming guitar keeping the rhythm of this smooth and complex instrumental.
Muriwai comes in with a much lighter feel and with a sound not a million miles away from a reggae beat before letting the pipes carry the tune along. The track, inspired by the people and place of New Zealand, is a trilogy and even comes with a specially compose "haka" from Scott Morrison. The melodies have an urgency about them at times emulating the rhythm of a train. The subtle use of the bagpipes, for those of you who thought that was not possible, adds real depth to the melodies.
Robertson gets a chance to stretch his vocal cords on another three part tune in Outlaws and Dreamers, composed by fellow Scot the great Dick Gaughan, accompanied, again very subtly, by Henderson in backing mode. The tunes move on at a sleepy but thoughtful pace giving the listener time to absorb and enjoy every note.
Henderson gets a chance to show her composing skills with Farsund, inspired by the Norwegian town of the same name. Another multi-layered offering, it is light and more shrill than the previous offering and the sound they weave is as complex as the threads of the tartan images the understated bagpipes conjure.
Mo Thruaighe Leir Thu 'Ille Bhuidhe is a traditional song about whisky smuggling with the band coming up with their own arrangement.
Henderson's vocals dance along with the precision of the toes of highland dancers. Her traditional style of singing is spot on and you get a real chance to enjoy the clarity with which she expresses herself.
The Ramparts is a double helping of music and at first it's easy to think it's composed entirely of bagpipe and guitar music. But listen a little closer and you soon realise it's in the type of complex composition which Breabach make sound so easy in their execution.
Breabach in full flight
This is followed by the White Sands of Jervis bay and straight away with the haunting vocals of Yirmal Marika you are transported to Australia, the inspiration for another multi-layered offering. The ethnic singing gives way to some luscious whistle and fiddle playing. It's a perfect example of how the band produce some really convoluted music which just cannot be fathomed by a single hearing they are such masters of producing intricate tunes that every time something new will catch the listeners ear. At more than seven minutes duration it's the longest track on the album and yet never loses your interest right down the vocal fade out.
Les Pieds Joyeux, which can be easily worked out by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of French, introduces the art of foot tapping courtesy of Olivier Demers. The effect however is rather lost in the sound of the pipes and whistles it would have been more enjoyable had the tapping been brought to the fore a little more or even given at least an unaccompanied section. Nevertheless it is the sort of track that almost dares you to keep your feet still.
Probably the most traditionally Celtic track on the album is The Striking Clock opening with a jig and closing with a slip jig. The tune brings the band right back to their roots which, among all the globetrotting and cultural digestion, is never forgotten. Admittedly they do sneak the didgeridoo in but when the music is as enjoyable as this is, you can forgive them that.
Henderson's Gaelic tones are called upon again for Coisich A' RĂ¹in a song which narrows their expression of their roots to Barra. The wild and lonely island so often favoured by John Laurie as Pvt Frazer in Dad's Army. However, Henderson's tones paint a much more warm and inviting place with her singing.
Robertson sings on his own composition Ribbon of Fire inspired while in Australia and NZ and his style on this track reminds of fellow Scot Kris Drever. The strong ballad tells of now matter where you go in the world you will find elements of the human condition which will unite us.
The new album
The album ends with the rather appropriately titled The Last March. This is a tribute to composer the late John Morris Rankin. Once again Breabach's skill in weaving together layers of instruments and sounds is evident. It sounds like a fairly simple air but the more you listen to it the more you understand the depth of sound the combinations provide.
Breabach fill every corner of their songs and tunes with diverse sounds and layers which in the hands of lesser skilled musicians would sound clunky and disparate. But they have the knack of layering complex harmonies and melodies in such a way that they sound almost organic and, like building up the sheen on a fine piece of furniture, it's only after many attempts do you get to really appreciate the depth of the reflections.

Astar is out now on Breabach Records and available from the band's website, Proper Music and Highlander Distribution.

You can catch them live at Bishopton Folk Night, Renfrewshire on March 25, doors open 7pm and tickets are £10 and £8; The Grand, Clitheroe on March 31, doors open at 7pm for a 7.45pm start and tickets are £13.50 in advance or £6 for under 18s; Pontio, Bangor on April 1 starting 8pm and tickets are £14 or £12 concessions and finally Drygate, Glasgow on April 2, show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £15.

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