THIS has already been shaping up as a good year for folk albums (Boreas and Mairearad Green have been getting heavy rotation at home) and now five-piece Breabach return with Astar, a dozen tracks that thrillingly place Scottish traditions within a global context.
Over the past few years Breabach have travelled the world, notably with the Boomerang project that brought Gaelic, Maori and Aboriginal cultures to Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games.
And there are direct influences here – the Haka that’s woven into Muriwai, sound of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle on Farsund, the distinctive voices of Quebec’s Le Vent Du Nord on Les Pieds Joyeux. However, the musical core remains the unique interplay of James Mackenzie and Calum MacCrimmon’s pipes and whistles and Megan Henderson’s fiddle, set to the rhythmic pulse of Ewan Robertson’s guitar and James Lindsay’s double bass. An evocative postcard of recent travels and a statement on the fruits of cross-cultural encounters, Astar is an album with meaning beyond its own music. It’ll make for a great tour climax when they play Drygate in Glasgow on April 2.
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Other releases have been catching my ears too. The chaotic overspill that opens Bad Man, the second album from December ‘91, is like waking from a nightmare to a troubled conscience. This one-man project from Craig Ferrie, self-recorded and self-produced in both Glasgow and Quebec, swings between moods as it openly discusses a ménage a trois divided by the Atlantic.
The art-pop angles of Woman In A Man’s Body give way to the piano-led balladry of title track and circling guitar-picking of When You Come.
As so the album goes on, contemplative one minute, forceful the next – but always anxious, through bursts of punkish self-doubt (I Don’t Know) and folkish introspection (I’ll Try To Let You Know). The production desk has become the therapist’s couch.
I’ve also been impressed by the progression shown on All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, the sophomore album from Edinburgh’s Universal Thee.
Debut album Back To Earth seemed a bit entrenched in a Pixies-go-jangle-pop fusion, and while there’s still a touch of feyness in the male/female vocal harmonies and sweet melodies, there’s a heftier sound to the fore now that better defines the band.
Hey features great, quickly shifting hooks; Hamlet 3 has a killer harmonic chorus that winks at The Strokes; Lost At Sea lets guitars and voices overlap with increasing complexity, like a worthy successor to The Vaselines.
As an album, it’s a confident step forwards.