It was a Sunday morning, the 7th of August 2016, about 10:00 in the morning. It was slightly drizzly and we – my girlfriend, the
crew, me, and a whole bunch of other Castlefest die-hards – were sitting on the hill overlooking the folk stage, listening to the gentle sounds of
The Moon and the Nightspirit,
while watching the Sunday crowd slowly filling up the grounds again. The perfect way to start a
Next up was a Spanish band that I, up to that point, didn’t know. But that was about to change! Fast! Within two songs that band had the whole crowd awake and dancing and me going for my camera.
(You can see one of the pictures I took then just below this paragraph)
That band was
and their show worked better for waking me up than a liter of strong espresso would ever do! Obviously I bought their CD Oinos straight after the show and it is still being played monthly in the De Booy household. Especially the song Fodder for the Raven I consider a firm pagan folk classic.
What makes Cuélebre and that first album Oinos, published in 2014, so unique is their
dark tribal sound; The deep roar of the didge combined with fast energetic drums, the dominant sound of bandleader Yhandros Huergo’s hurdy-gurdy combined with the haunting flute melodies flowing through the music like morning fog over the roughed scorched Spanish mountains. Oinos makes me think of the pictures I’ve seen of
the barren black peaks, the vultures circling the sky, a bobcat sliding through the undergrowth. Cuélebre makes the perfect soundtrack for that landscape: dark, tribal, and passionate. The whispered, half-sung, half-spoken vocals of Marta Gálves made it all complete, making Oinos a unique sound in the European pagan folk scene.
In August 2017 Cuélebre released their second album Anaman, with only bandleader Yhandros remaining from the line-up that recorded Oinos. It didn’t change Cuélebre’s sound too much though. The biggest change were the vocals, the then ‘new’ singer Rose Avalon
has a background in jazz and melodic metal. Her voice made Cuélebre’s music more dynamic, more powerful, but slightly less ‘haunted’. The whole album has a more positive feel over it, without losing that strong tribal connection to the old Iberian tribes and the roughed Spanish landscape.
Now, finally, the long-awaited third CD, Dijara arrived and it is a stunner! Like I mentioned before, there have been some line-up changes in the last couple of years, mainly in the vocal part, and again I was really interested in how it would affect Cuélebre ‘s sound.
Well, to answer that straight away: Dijara is the perfect mix of Oinos and Anaman, taking the best elements of both albums. What remained is the strong tribal feel, the fast deep drums, and the haunting shards of flute cutting, weaving its way through the deep didge sound and the everpresent hurdy-gurdy. The vocals on the other hand returned to the more chanting, shamanic style we know of Oinos, something I personally think suites Cuélebre’s music really well. I feel like Cuélebre’s sound is slightly ‘mean’ again, that rough edge is back in the sound. And I personally love it.
Leiko Kei Tratt, Derwa, and Karuo are such strong vibrant dancing tunes, they are bursting with power and energy. Deva and Tanit, on the other hand, are slightly slower songs with that familiar haunting tribal sound, reminiscent of Fodder for the Raven, my favourite song of Cuélebre’s first record.
So is Dijara an Oinos part two? No, not at all. Cuélebre took some huge steps forward since then. First off there are those vocals. They are mostly recorded double and although Judith doesn’t use the exuberant vocal capacity of Rose Avalon, she does put in a lot more melody than Marta did. Not that one is better than the other, they just use different styles and I happen to like them all. A lot of the time Judith’s vocals remind me of
especially on songs like Keinoman, Deva, and Leiko Kei Tratt. And I have to say, it fits the music of Cuélebre perfectly.
Another thing that progressed a lot is the overall sound of the album. While staying true to the original feel of Cuélebre, Yhandros put a lot of effort into the end mix, making the album sound way richer, more dynamic, and far more powerful then Oinos or even Anaman. The best example is the song Macha, starting out as a mid-tempo song reminiscent of Fodder for the Raven, it quickly builds up to a full-on energetic dance tune, with the same powerful build up as
Cesair’sCanzo. No mean feat.
Another example is Derwa, a strong pagan folk song, acoustic, but with a drum/didge rhythm that would work perfectly as the basis of a ’90’s Eurodance song. Really? Yes really! And the best thing about it? It works! Victor has a didge style, quite similar to that of
which works perfectly in such a ‘modern’ interpretation of a tribal pagan folk beat.
Another example of the strong mixing skills on Dijara is the ‘choir’, kicking in halfway through Leiko Kei Tratt, making this vibrant tribal dance tune sound even more impressive. because of that I consider Leiko Kei Tratt, together with Derwa, one of the strongest tracks on this impressive CD.
Adding everything up I can conclude that Dijara is Cuélebre’s strongest album ’til now. Strong, powerful dynamic, and tribal. If I am looking for comparisons, then the sound of Cuélebre nowadays makes me sometimes think of Omnia, especially their famous rhythm section: Daphyd Sens and Rob van Barschot. Sometimes small segments of the music remind of
(just listen to the flute solo leading us into Karuo for instance), in the first songs especially the vocals lead me towards the older material of Faun, and even
impressive vocalists pop up one time as a reference (Listen to the spoken vocals on Macha, they are just as strong as Brisinga’s vocals on Sinä Ja Minä), but these are all references. Add everything up and the sound is 100% recognizably Cuélebre. With Dijara the Spanish band settles themselves firmly at the top of the pagan folk scene. Congratulations Cuélebre, you did all did a hell of a job on this one!
-editor: Sara Weeda
1 Cliff de Booy taken at Castlefest 2016
2,3 courtesy of Cuélebre
Salt House – Huam (2020) Review
This is the creature
“This is the creature there has never been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.
Not there, because they loved it, it behaved
as though it were. They always left some space.
And in that clear unpeopled space they saved
it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace
of not being there.
They fed it, not with corn,
but only with the possibility
of being. And that was able to confer
such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.
Whitely it stole up to a maid – to be
within the silver mirror and in her.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
It might seem a bit odd, starting a folk CD review with poem, but for me, writing a review is not about judging and dissecting the music. It is all about sharing. Sharing what I hear and what music does to me. In this particular case, the music
recorded, had my mind drift off to this poem time and time again.
I’ll tell you why. The power of This is the Creature is that every word is carefully selected to be there, none more needed, none more written. Every word opens up a space to wander into. It is real, yet it is not. And most importantly, Rainer Maria Rilke uses the power of limitation. Less is more. Less is beautiful.
The first track on Huam, called Fire Light, starts just like that. It is just a single guitar melody and a voice. Nothing more, nothing less. A warming tender voice though. A poetic voice too. And that is it. That is all you need for a beautiful song. Yes, there is the added violin, that subtle sound of the dulcimer, that build-up to a beautiful ballad, but it never takes away from the essence of the song: the words, the poetry in it.
Beautiful poetic music, Singer-songwriter folk at it’s very best
The sixth track If I Am Lucky is equally beautiful. Again that beautiful combination of a guitar and a voice, beautiful harmonies, and a gentle but really catchy hook weave through the song. But once again this is all to support the words, the poetry. All three members of Salt House are storytellers, singer-songwriters in the purest form, never overdone, never overdramatic. Always honest, with a sprinkling of tenderness and positivity that I just love. Every single note of it. In older folk songs there is often a lot of pure storytelling. Think of songs like The Well, Twa Corbies, Matty Groves or Little Duke Arthur’s Nurse. With Lord Ullins Daughter, Salt House also recorded such an old story, and it is the perfect combination of story and music. It has a slightly darker feel than the first two songs I described, achieved just by a simple guitar rhythm at just the right tone and the viola ‘creeping’ under it. Who needs all kinds of fancy keyboard effects if you have a voice, guitar and viola? Not Salt House!
Huam – the Scots name for the call of an owl – is Salt House’s third album. In 2013
Siobhan Miller (vocals, harmonium),
Ewan MacPherson (guitar, vocals, banjo, Jews harp),
Lauren MacColl (viola, fiddle, vocals) and
Euan Burton (double bass, Rhodes piano, vocals) recorded the debut album Lay Your Dark Low. An album equally as beautiful as Huam, slightly richer in arrangements but lovely Celtic singer-songwriter folk. Don’t expect any dance tunes on Salt House’s albums: the band’s focus is on the storytelling side of folk, and they do this in a fresh and modern way that is reminiscent of like-minded artists like
Back of the Moon,
Findlay Napier, or
In a slightly different line-up (Singer-songwriter
joining Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl) the band recorded the more balladesque record Undersong (2018). On Undersong the band focusses even more on the lyrics side of a song, while the instruments becoming a ‘simple’ accompaniment to the songs. Like a simple dressing to a salad.
On Huam Jenny, Ewan, Lauren and producer
(who also worked with them on Undersong) added just that touch more melody and interest to the arrangements, making Huam sound like the perfect balance between Lay Your Dark Low and Undersong. To keep the salad comparison up, this time we don’t have a salad-with-dressing. Instead, we find little added surprises: some sundried tomatoes, some honey roasted cashew nuts, some rosemary spiced goats cheese, spicing up the ‘basic’ salad ever so nicely into something really delicate and special (And yes, I DID go to a fancy restaurant the evening before I wrote this review)
We are already getting to the end of the review. Just as the music on Huam, less is more. Huam is a truly stunning album that both me and my lovely editor Iris love. (Actually, we all love it at CeltCast HQ, Fire Light has even been voted to be the Monthly Marker for August.)
Sometimes I can compare Salt House’s music with the early work of
(The Disquiet for instance), sometimes with Cara (just listen to Union of Crows and you’ll understand why). Sometimes the band sounds light and cheerful like on All Shall Be Still, sometimes deeply traditional like on William and Elsie, and sometimes even Christmassy (add some *sleighbells* and Mountain Of Gold is the next CeltCast Christmas hit). Most of all they sound pure and honest, making Huam a beautiful singer-songwriter folk album. It’s one that I will be playing many times more after publishing this review. An A+ album if I would be giving points.
– Editor: Iris
– Picture: Salt House
Arthuan Rebis – La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo (2020) Review
When it comes to selecting the albums that we want to review Ilona and I work very closely together. Sometimes I find a band and enthusiastically share it with Ilona to get it played on Celtcast, so I am allowed to write a review on it. And sometimes Ilona drops me a line when she finds something really special in her mailbox. And that is just what happened with La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo. It started with one small line:
-‘Cliff, at the moment I’m chatting with Arthuan Rebis.‘
That was it. But five days later I got another message from Ilona:
-‘Cliff, I’m going to send a very special album to you. It is from the Italian artist Arthuan. He made this record as a Corona lock-down project, and I love it!!‘
Well, messages like that made me discover beautiful music of bands like
and Rachel Croft,
so my expectations were high! And, as always, I was not disappointed. La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo is an intriguing musical fairytale, calming, peaceful, and meditative.
recorded it all by himself, only assisted by narrator
So come, let us travel to Italy together. Let’s travel to a spring that belonged only to the fairy people. Let’s go and listen to a story that started not that long ago. A story that started on March the 21st of this year.
Arthuan Rebis is the artist’s name of Italian composer, multi-instrumentalist, and free-spirited mind Alessandro Arturo Cucurnia.
Arthuan, as we will continue to call him, has built up a quite interesting back catalog. Since 2011 he is a member of the Italian medieval/dance/performance act In Vino Veritas. We did a review on their latest album Grimorium Magi not that long ago
He is also the founding member of The Magic Door, a band he started with film director, actress, and songwriter Giada Colagrande. We will dive into this intriguing band in a later review, but, having said that, those interested in world folk and art-pop should check this band out straight away.
Over the years Arthuan has studied traditional music from across the world. Finding an equal love for Nordic folk, Celtic music, and Eastern (read Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian) traditional music. His interest is also not limited by a time period, he is just as happy to play Medieval traditionals with In Vino Veritas as he is playing modern art-folk with The Magic Door.
All of those influences have found their way on La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo. A musical fairytale the artist started writing at the start of the Corona outbreak and subsequent lockdown, and that he finished around a month later.
Aurore Invisibili, the first song on La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo, is a blueprint for the whole album. If you love this song you’ll love the whole album. No question about it! When I first heard it I described it as a mix of
Calm meditative music almost leaning towards the new age sound, but never as sugar-coated.
In this song, no on this whole album, Arthuan brings two worlds together. On one hand you have the European folk side with instruments like the nyckelharpa, classical guitar, and harp. On the other you have the eastern influences of the Hulusi – a Chinese reed instrument – with its slightly haunted tone and the Indian Esraj – a string instrument played with a bow.
The combination of the two worlds gives you beautiful instrumental ballads, with a slightly sad and melancholic feel to them that just captures you deep within. Vael introduced the word Pan folk – world folk – to describe their music, and this is world folk at its very very best!
…A voice warm enough to melt chocolate icecream…
The title song La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo starts with Narrator Paolo Tofani reciting the first part of the fairy tale Arthuan has created. And what a voice Paolo has. A voice warm enough to melt chocolate icecream in a fridge. Rarely have I met somebody with soo much love in his voice. I now fully understand why women looooove Italians. Hearing Paolo talk even I go weak in the knees!
The story itself is about the fairy Alidoro. Here is what Arthuan tells us about it on his
–‘This album is a sort of “Musical Fairytale”, a guided journey, a night flight on the wings of the fairy Alidoro, in search of a disappeared humanity and the Great Heart. I started composing the music on March 21, 2020 and I finished the arrangements and mixing exactly one month later. This was my way of channeling and transforming the “lockdown” energies: trying to evoke the inspiration of Love of an Invisible Elsewhere that I have always perceived as present.‘
Well, I can tell you Arthuan succeeded. He is a wonderful composer! Honnestly. The way he combines the European folk sound with Eastern folk music. The way he manages to calm you down with every note he plays. Deliberately choosing the notes that will gently ease your mind in a gentle flow of relaxation. I have loved playing this record after a stressful workday, just to relax. The Third song Venti di Impermanenza is a perfect example of what I just described. It is such a beautiful song, that I have no words for it. Actually it is better that I have none, words would only disturb the moment.
Danze di Alidoro e Specchi di Rugiada is another one of those wonderful compositions. And Arthuan takes his time in this one. For 11:08 minutes he captives you in this 4 part world folk suite. In English the title of the song translates to: The dance of Alidoro in between mirrors of dew and it is done so exquisitely, so tastefully. Please listen to that beautiful rhythmical harp melody, repetative but never getting boring. Listen to those beautiful notes of the esraj and guitar, those touches of synthesizer, always coming and going, the music ever so gently increasing in strength, representing the waking day. It all sounds so simple and in that lies its beauty. Less is more. Let me rephrase that! less is pure beauty!
…This record is as pure as you can get…
Vael, Emian, new age music and every now and again touches of
That were the references that came to my mind while listening to la Primavera de Piccolo Popolo. Not totally true actually, I had one more reference I wrote down, but at first I discarded it as too obvious. I have a T’ai Chi CD at home – music purely made for meditation – and La Primavera del Piccolo Popolo has that same calming effect on me. ‘This would be such wonderful music to meditate to‘ I wrote. But as I said, I found it too obvious. I feared that, together with my reference to new age music, it would push this album in one certain corner. A corner that, considering all its quality, wouldn’t do justice to this wonderful album. So I decided to leave it out. That was until I read Arthuan’s biography and the part about his holistic activities:
–‘ Since he was a child he has cultivated vocation, study, and research about spirituality and esotericism. He currently conducts seminars of the magical science of sound, meditation with the elements and connection and interaction with the invisible worlds.’
Well, you hear all that in la Primavera de Piccolo Popolo. This record is as pure as you can get. This album IS Alessandro Arturo Cucurnia in his musical form. This is everything he stands for.
The fact that it was created in just a month’s time is its biggest asset. It means the music isn’t polished out. It has kept its freshness, its innocence, its purity. This is the essence of Arthuan Rebis. This is the essence of what he wanted to say. And he said it beautifully!!! Thank you Arthuan!! Thank you Alidoro, for flying out that night in March, so we all could hear your wonderful story!
– editor: Anna Schürmann
– pictures: Arthuan Rebis
Hamish Napier – The Railway (2018) review
Little did I know what a treasure chest of music I would discover when Mark van der Stelt suggested I should write an introduction to
Back of the Moon‘s
album Luminosity. Not only was the music by the band itself mesmerizing, but so were the projects that the band were involved with afterward. There is the singer/songwriter extraordinaire
(go check out his three solo albums and discover the magic of ‘just’ a voice and a guitar), there is the lovely Celtic folk on Pendulum,
2016 solo album I reviewed a couple of months ago (link), and I haven’t even started exploring the trazillion records
has been involved with. But today I want to focus on the lovely concept folk albums of composer and multi-instrumentalist
something I have wanted to do from the moment I first listened to them on
Earlier I combined his two nature-inspired albums: The River (2016) and The Woods (2020) in one review
now I will focus on the third solo album Hamish has recorded up till now: The Railway.
Hamish Napier, to quote the bio on his webpage:
-“ is originally from Strathspey in the Scottish Highlands. For over a decade he has been an integral part of Glasgow’s vibrant folk music scene, whilst also touring in Europe and North America with Scottish folk quartet Back of the Moon (‘Folk Band of the Year 2005’ MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards). Gaining degrees in Astronomy and Music when he first moved from his native Highlands to the city of Glasgow, Hamish was then awarded a year’s scholarship to study jazz piano and composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. Hamish now teaches composition and music theory at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and at music schools and festivals worldwide. He has recently returned to his native Strathspey, composing three solo albums The River (2016), The Railway (2018), and The Woods (2020) in celebration of his homeland.‘
When Hamish performed The River live in Grantown in summer ’16, Karen Blessington approached him enthusiastically after the show, inviting him to compose a soundtrack to her exciting new venture,
the Grantown East: Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre.
And the rest, as they say, is history. During the making of this album, Hamish talked a lot with former railwaymen Jimmy Gray (then 93), Jacky Hay (then 94), and James Telfer (then 94). The Railway is as much their story as it is Hamish’s.
The record kicks off with The Speyside Line. As on the whole record, Hamish combines his love for piano and whistles with his talent to compose really catchy instrumental Celtic folk songs that are rich in tradition but with a modern, slightly jazzy sound. Those jazzy laid back drums and double bass lines are what make his folk music so accessible. The song is about the Spey line itself, its route never far from the river, sometimes almost hanging over it, and – listening to the music – traveling it must have been beautiful. Hamish – the composer – has this special ability to take a picture in notes, to create a drawing in his melody lines, and on The Speyside Line he makes us re-live every bend of this historic line.
‘A pair of tunes for a pair of steam locomotives’ That’s how Hamish introduces Double Header, the second song on The Railway. And yes Hamish did indeed write a song to immortalize two famous old steam locomotives. Even more actually. For the steam geeks here is the rest of Hamish’s introduction:
–‘The first tune is for
of the Highland Railway, the popular ‘Black 5’ (LMS Class 5) which driver Jocky Hay praised as a “damn good engine!” The second is for
the Gordon Highlander, the Speyside Line’s most beloved LNER D40. The Strathspey Railway’s beautifully restored
Ivatt Class 2 locomotive
also gets a wee mention, its
British Rail train number ‘46512’
is also the chord sequence in the bridge between the two tunes!’
I love reading those introductions. It really brings the music and story together in a funny and witty way. The song itself starts with some lovely upbeat variations on flute and violin representing ‘the Hikers’ of the Highland railway before the highland pipes slowly ‘merge’ in to represent ‘the Sojer’ of the Speyside line.
Next up is Jocky the Mole and it brings back the glory days of Back of the Moon, with the brothers Napier joining forces one more time. Findlay takes the vocals twice on The Railway: in this song, and in The World Came In By Rail. Both are, as we Dutch say, pearls of Celtic singer-songwriter folk music that would not have sounded out of place on that classic album Luminosity. My first highlight of the CD.
It is followed straight by my second highlight: The Firebox. Don’t ask me HOW Hamish did it, but I can just see the flames licking through the coals as the fire is lit in the firebox. You can feel the engine heating up, you can feel the immense power, that was able to pull all those carriages up the Hills awakening. The steal muscles of the mighty machine gearing up for action. The deep double bass rhythm in the song represents that mighty power, the flute and fiddle variations represent the fire jumping and licking over the coals as the fireman shoved shovel after shovel of fuel into the firebox.
The Old Ways is:
[quote] ‘a slow 6/8 march written in honour of the traditional skills, trades, and ways of life lovingly preserved by historians and enthousiasts[…][..]celebrating what is unique and special about our culture.’Up The Hill starts as a lovely song with a mesmerizing flute solo that gently eases your mind into a state of calm. If you would tell me that it is about hanging in a grass field with a strand of grass in my mouth, chilling while I am looking at the clouds passing by overhead I would have believed you. But… …the second part of the song O’er Drumochter would not fit at all, so it can’t be. And indeed it isn’t. It is about the climb to Drumochter summit, the highest part of the Scottish railway, and the struggle the old steam engines had getting up there. The story is captured wonderfully in the booklet, told by the old railwayman Jimmy Gray. As I said, this is as much the old railwaymen’s story as anything else. And Hamish is a master in capturing that.
This is proven best in Helen’s Song. A heartfelt ballad that Hamish composed in memory of Jimmy Gray’s wife Helen, who was with him for 63 years. Starting as a beautiful piano piece, it is Patsy Reid and her string skills that make Helen’s Song an exquisite homage to a lifetime of love.
But this album is not only the story of the railwaymen, in Dr. McGugan’s and Cheery Groove the story gets a true personal touch. The first song is an air written as a gift to a close friend, the second song a slip jig composed for his parents, in memory of all the great house ceilidhs -social gatherings- with friends and family over the years. In an interview, Hamish said that he finds it extremely important not to separate the ‘folk’ from the music and that is the power of this beautiful CD. The magic of it lies in the combination of music and the story told in the booklet, which was sometimes witty as the old railwaymen told their anecdotes, sometimes interesting as Hamish went into the history of the line itself, sometimes touching and beautiful as proven in Helen’s Song. I loved reading it.
This is one of those albums that got me writing as soon as I heard the first notes. Not to outdo The River,which I love, and The Woods, also a strong and unique Celtic folk album, I arguably consider The Railway to be Hamish’s best record yet. (This is a purely personal opinion though, so feel free to disagree.) Gems like Diesel, Jocky The Mole, and Helen’s Song have helped this album find its way into my CD player time and time again.
Together the trilogy of The River, The Railway, and The Woods is a true homage to the Cairngorms, the place where Hamish Napier grew up, the place he now calls home again. On the postcard that goes with the CDs it says:’ Hamish Napier; Scottish Highlander – Folk Musician – Composer – Tutor. To put it in THAT order is a clear statement! Through ALL of Hamish’s his solo work you can hear the love and pride he has for his home country, for the people that live in it, for the history of the land, for his beloved Highlands! And the best thing about it? He is not done yet! The fourth album is already on its way. I can’t wait to hear it!
-editor: Iris de Wolf
-pictures: Hamish Napier
If you would like to support Hamish Napier you can find him on:
– Facebook or
Hamish Napier – The River (2016) / The Woods (2020) Review
The Cairngorms, a rugged mountain range in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland, nicely nestled in between the cities Inverness, Aberdeen, and Dundee. For me, it is one of my bucket list places to go. Ever since I was a kid the Highlands have had a magical attraction on me. Don’t ask me why a young Dutch kid would dream of hiking in the Scottish mountains, but I did. And that longing for anything Scottish never stopped, hence my utter joy when the last few episodes of
Autumnwatch, and Winterwatch were all recorded within the boundaries of the
Cairngorm national park.
The Cairngorms, not only are they one of my favourite spots in the world; not only are they the stage for one of the best real-life nature programmes ever made; but they are also the home of former
Back of the Moon
And just like the BBC Springwatch team sparked my love for the region even more with their wonderful camera work, Hamish managed to do exactly the same with his music. The River (2016), The Railway (2018) – an album I will introduce in a separate review- and The Woods (2020). are dedicated to this wonderful bit of the Scottish countryside.
As this review will be about two records and I have a limited amount of space available to do so, I’ll leave introducing Hamish Napier for now and go straight into the music itself. If you want to know more about this talented Scottish folk composer and multi-instrumentalist, just follow this
link to the review of The Railway,
where I do have the space to introduce him properly.
In 2016 The River, an instrumental concept folk CD celebrating the river Spey, was released. Hamish’s explains
: -“The river brings to the surface vivid images of occurrences, past and present, along the mile-long stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home. One of my brothers fished it, the other canoed it, my uncle Sam photographed it, my friends and I swam in it, my mother paints it and there’s my father’s daily fascination with its erratically changing water level. It will always symbolize home and a strong connection to nature.”
That connection to nature is clear from the very first song on this album, called Mayfly. Mayflies are aquatic insects closely related to dragonflies and damselflies. For the best part of the year, they live a secret life as nymphs underwater, but for a few warm days in the late spring, they hatch in their millions. Only living for a couple of hours – days at best – the whole purpose of the adult mayfly is to mate. The males will ‘dance’, flying up and down above the water to attract a female. Having so many insects do that at one time is a magical sight and Hamish Napier managed to capture that beautifully. The sound of the keyboard and flutes weave and wave through the song, just as the mayfly would do above the water. Listening to the music, you can really see the spectacle before your very eyes. A moment of calm in the music may represent a salmon rising up or a gust of wind pushing the mayfly down, and then a final tin whistle solo pushes the song to a powerful climax. This Proves that Hamish is not only a talented soloist, but also a skilled composer.
This is a skill he proves again with the second song on this album, the title track The River. The music is so well-composed that you only have to close your eyes and you will see the water. You will feel the water pass, you will see the sparks of light blinding your eyes as the ripples of water reflect the sun. You will sense the birds nesting in the reed along the banks of this beautiful river.
That magic is retained in The Whirlpool. Once again a lovely flute melody takes you by the hand and leads you deep into Hamish’s youth. Come to think of it, THAT is exactly how this album sounds: like childhood memories put to music. In every note, Hamish manages to capture the beauty of the Spey, the nature around it, and the people living around this Scottish river. The result is magical. The music just sparkles from beginning to end. A CD that will appeal to the fans of pagan folk and Celtic folk alike.
It is not all jolly times and happiness though. Like almost everything in nature, a river not only gives but sometimes also takes, and the river Spey is no exception. Drowning of the Silver Brothers is a poignant tribute to the dangers that lie hidden in the depths of the river. It is a beautiful duet between flute and piano, and one of the highlights on this album.
Musically, The River is a cool mix between traditional folk solos (mainly on the flutes), a touch of chamber music piano, and a modern easy listening bass/drums rhythm section. The jazziest of them all are the songs Floating and Huy Huy!. Two lovely Celtic flute themes put over a Shakatak kind of jazz guitar/bass/piano groove, one theme sliding effortlessly into the other.
Iasgairean Nan Neamhnaid (The Pearlfishers) is the last song on The River that I want to mention myself. A strong musical statement against the destruction of nature. The last word on The River I give to Hamish Napier, in a musical way. Here he is performing the last track of the CD: Spey Cast part 2, The Raft Race.
HAMISH NAPIER – THE WOODS (2020)
While The River is overflowing with powerful musical memories, The Woods is different, mainly because of the main theme Hamish choose for it. Instead of going for the ‘obvious’ main subjects (the majestic green skyline, the morning choir of songbirds; or the rut of the red deer), Hamish went for a different approach. Whereas he used to view “the woods” as a single, impressive entity as a child, he now sees all the different ‘actors’ that make up the woods; the mighty oak, the pioneering birch, but also the smaller bushes, the all-important insects, even the humble mycorrhizal fungi have found a place in Hamish’s songs.
The Gaelic alphabet was traditionally taught to children through the old names of the native trees, and this is the theme Hamish picked up again for his musical interpretation of the Woods, making the CD sound a wee bit less impressive from what I had assumed beforehand, but this concept definitely brings out the best in Hamish as a contemporary folk composer.
Again Hamish manages to captivate you from the very first notes of his CD. Again that ‘sparkling’ positive feel is in his playing. The Pioneer is not only a song about the first letter of the early medieval alphabet: the B, but also about one of the first trees to spread across the post ice age landscape, one of the first trees to open their leaves in spring, the Birch. It also sounds like the start of spring, the start of early morning, so it is in many ways the perfect start to The Woods.
I love the second song. It’s not about a tree and also not a letter of the Gaelic alphabet, but about one of the many creatures living in the Scottish Highlands, the
Capercaillie. Hamish says the following about it: “The Capercaillie is an otherworldly creature. The male birds are as giant as they are cantankerous and famed for their clicks, pops, and flutter jumps at the ‘lek’ during mating season. With Egyptian eyeliner, a Japanese fantail, velvet green neck plumage, and a fierce hooked beak, the giant grouse fly through the Scots pinewood canopy with all the grace of a cannonball. Capercaillies have been known to take on foes several times their own size, including stationary Land Rovers.”
This quote is taken from the extensive booklet going with The Woods, a booklet filled with information about the featured trees, mixed with some local stories, a bit of Gaelic folklore, and of course Hamish his own personal memories, all brought together through the stunning pen drawings by
The song The Capercaillie Rant / An Taghan, itself is a cheerful Celtic tin whistle/Highland pipe melody in a lovely contemporary pop jacket. Think of the style of the German band
Cara on their Horizon album
or of course Hamish’s old band Back Of The Moon.
The Tree Of Blessings is a lovely short piano piece dedicated to the juniper bush, and is a strong, rather pop-like song. The same goes for The Tree of Luck, (pop meets Celtic folk ballad). Just as The River, The Woods is an instrumental folk CD. But despite it being 66 minutes long divided over 21 tracks it has enough variation to keep you fascinated till the very last note.
Describing al 21 tracks would be rather pointless, so I’m just going to pick out some personal highlights. The first of them the jazzy folk ballad Mycorrhiza/The Tree Of Life. A lovely composition.
Another one comes immediately after that: track 6, called The Tree of Life / The Three of Lightning. It’s about the mighty Oak tree and its smaller neighbour, the holly. In folklore, the Holly King and the Oak King used to overpower one another at the solstices, with the Oak King dominating the summer and the Holly King the winter. Starting small, this song quickly evolves into an instrumental power ballad, clearly inspired by this age-old battle of the seasons. This is a relatively short, powerful song that will be loved by people who are into Celtic folk and pagan folk alike.
The Tree of Knowledge is a lovely, tender piano ballad, inspired both by the hazel, a tree that according to the Celts represented wisdom and poetic inspiration. It was also composed in honour of Rosie Fisher, a family friend of the Napiers who made two wood sculptures, one depicting Pan, and the other depicting the American naturalist, writer, and philosopher Thoreau. These inspirations, rather than the obvious ones, are what make The Woods such an interesting CD. You clearly hear the poet, the philosopher, the sculptor in this song. As a folk ballad, The Tree of Knowledge is already lovely, together with the story in the booklet it becomes magic.
Forest Folk is another one of those songs with a twist. Listening to it, it is a lovely cheerful tune, an instant earworm actually. Hamish explains this track is about all the small flowers, shrubs, mosses, and lichen you find in the woods. It is also dedicated to all those who wander in the woods, looking at all the wonders of the forests, those who take the time to find beauty in the small things in life.
You will probably realize by now that this album is actually a musical adventure. Just like the forest at first glance, appears to be a sea of green, this album at first glance seems to be ‘just’ an instrumental pop/folk album. But don’t be fooled. Take your time with and this record will ever so slowly reveal its inner beauty, bit by bit. Just as the forest will reveal ITS magic to all of us who dare to wander deep into its dark, green, but oh so majestic heart.
If you love Celtic music; focussed on flute and piano; with delicate splashes of pipes and guitar; firmly connected in tradition but with a modern sound; and if you happen to love nature as well, then The River and The Woods are an enrichment of your music collection. No doubt about that!
– editor: Iris de Wolf
-Picture: Hamish Napier
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