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
If you would like to support Hamish Napier you can find him on:
– Facebook or
Myrkur – Folkesange (2020) review
Myrkur on CeltCast? Really? If someone had told me that I would be writing a review of a Myrkur album, or that a Myrkur song would become a Monthly Marker, I would have laughed you straight in the face. Loudly actually! Up till now, the black metal Myrkur played was as far away from the CeltCast format as artistically possible. It was one of our photographers, Andre Willemse, that tipped us off that Folkesange, Myrkur’s newest record, was totally different. So the music team gave it a go… ….and totally fell in love with this exceptional Scandinavian folk album. Because that is what Folkesange is. Gone are all the blast beats, the battering guitar riffs, and the extreme black metal screams. Instead, we have a peaceful acoustic Scandinavian folk album. I can imagine the surprise on some metalheads faces when they heard this record for the first time, but from the CeltCast point of view we are quite happy that,
the artist behind
showed yet another side of her diverse musical personality.
Researching Amalie’s musical history gave me one of the most interesting stories I’ve seen in a long time. Amalie was born in Denmark in 1985 and she released her first record ‘Amalie Bruun‘ which she wrote together with her father in 2006. In 2008 she recorded the theme song for the American reality show Paradise Hotel. The single, If You Give It Up, is actually a quite catchy pop song with a lovely Indian theme hidden inside. Following this first success she went to New York later in 2008. At that same time she recorded the EP
a very nice mix between alternative pop and singer-songwriter material. As if
– Human Behavior– met
Big Big World – on a
Suzanne Vega party.
I’m definitely going to try to get my hands on this interesting EP. Housecat won Amalie the New York Songwriters Circle International Award. In 2010, still under the name Amalie Bruun she released the EP
less Björk, more Emilia, still catchy as hell, her future in the American charts seemed certain.
But Amalie (picture with kind permission of Daria Endresen) decided differently, starting an interesting journey through music land, which tells me that she has a really broad taste in music and the ‘balls’ to go her own way.
After working together with producer
R.A. the Rugged Man,
she ends up the band
with whom she recorded two albums, True Hallucinations (2013) and Daggers (2014).
Their sound combined the sound of
with electro-pop tracks and ,again, splashes of Bjórk.
The Ex Cops broke up in 2015, and by then Amalie was already working on a secret project for Relapse Records: a black metal (!) project under the name of Myrkur, miles away from the singer-songwriter/alternative pop/rock music she was making up to that point.
Now I have to admit that black metal is one of the few genres of music that just doesn’t do anything for me, so I will not comment on any of the 2 EP’s or 3 records she has released under the Myrkur name, other than that it sounds rather melodic for a black metal band, and reading the internet comments she seems to have divided the black metal community slightly. With some calling her the fresh breeze of air the scene needed, and others expressing their dislike in the nice ‘polite’, ‘constructive’ manner that seems so ‘normal’ on the internet nowadays (NOT!) But now we have Folkesange, an acoustic Scandinavian folk album that again is a 180-degree twist in style that will, I am sure of that, raise even more discussion within the black metal world.
Will we do that too? Well no! First of all I fully understand why she did. Why do artists always have to bind themselves to one style? There is so much music to be explored. Why should fans decide what music an artist should make?
And secondly, Folkesange is actually a really good album that we all love at CeltCast HQ. Alex even insisted I should write this review. And no wonder. What binds all of Amalie’s music together is her ability to write and record really catchy music, and Folkesange is no exception.
First to open the new album is the single Ella, a song written by Amalie herself, and straight away she lays her first artistic trump card on the table. Her beautiful voice with just a beat under it. A voice that is strong and captivating. This is followed by her second trump card, an orchestra of ancient Scandinavian folk that sweeps you away to times gone by. A really impressive start to the song ánd to the whole cd. During the song the arrangements become more modern, drifting towards the choral sound of
tying together the modern with the old.
Fager Som En Ros is just as catchy, upbeat, and with a prominent place for the ancient Swedish instruments: the nyckelharpa, and the stråkharpa. giving the song a nice deep sound with Myrkur’s voice floating above it.
would probably be the best way to describe this song. Halfway through the song Myrkur throws in her final trump card: a powerful yoik cutting through the deep harpa sound. Mesmerizing.
That yoik will return a couple of times more on Folkesange and was actually the trigger to buy the album myself.
Leaves Of Yggdrasil is a touching ballad, mixing the modern new-age sound of Adiemus and
with the ancient feel of Scandinavian folk and the angelic sound of the Sami yoik.
Christopher Juul, (
as always, did a wonderful job recording it all. Together with Amalie, he created an album that sounds cold and white, which takes you deep into the fjords and woods of the Scandinavian peninsula. A sound that trembles ancient history and yet is as fresh as the first snow in early winter.
This feeling is even more present when listening to Tor I Holheim. I still remember the first time I heard someone singing a yoik. It was one of a few some small documentaries highlighting ancient traditions on Discovery Channel , and featured a Sami lady, with her colourful traditional clothing, who was filmed in a stunning white and green world that make up the beautiful pine forests of the deep Arctic north. She was explaining about her life, about how she traveled with the reindeer, the animals that still provide the Sami livelihood. And then she sang. An angelic high chant. A chant without words. A chant only meant to evoke or reflect an animal, a place, or a person. It fitted so perfectly, it gave me shivers down my spine. I’d never again came across a vocalist that had the same impact on me as that young Sami singer in that documentary. Until now that is! Listening to those first notes of Tor I Holheim, bringing back that beautiful memory, was enough to hit the buy button right there and then. Stunning, just stunning!
I could go on and on about Folkesange, but why would I. Every song is a beautiful mix of old Scandinavian folk in all its beauty combined with a modern new age choral sound that makes the deep sound of the old Scandi instruments sound even richer. The deep rich sound of Svea or Ramund (seen above), the medieval-sounding ballads Harpens Kraft and Gammelkäring, (a duet between the Strakharpa and Myrkur’s beautiful voice), the
tribute House Carpenter, or the angelic piano ballad Vinter they are all beautiful songs celebrating Amalie’s childhood. Folkesange is Myrkur’s tribute to the music of her youth. It is, as stated on her website: – “a journey into the very heart of the Scandinavian culture that marked Amalie’s childhood.” The album is recorded in a contemporary way, but with so much respect for the age and history of this music. In short: a CD that swept us all away, and we hope it will do the same with you!
Always quit while you’re ahead! Well, the Dutch folk band
took this old saying literally, announcing that the band would stop playing together in the very same message in which they talked about the release of their latest mini-CD. That is one way to get my attention. In the words of the band:
“- We are and will remain good friends but in the last two years we all went our own (musical) ways and we are happy with that. We had a very nice time with the band and are proud of all we have achieved, the great concerts we gave, all the nice people we’ve met and of the two CD’s we have released. We would like to thank the bookers who put their faith in us and made concerts possible on the most adventurous locations. And of course we thank the photographers who captured these concerts so we could share them with the world. Last but not least, we would very much like to thank YOU, our loyal fans, for your support, love, and for dancing to our off-count songs 😉. Here’s to friendship and music!!”
So Lanterne is not only Finvarra latest CD, no it is also the last album the band will make together. And yes just as you, I secretly – as secret as you can be writing it out right here- hope there will be a reunion somewhere in the future. Listening to the quality of music on the record, I am left craving for more. A lot more!
But let me introduce the band first. Finvarra are the Dutch musicians Dieke Elfring (vocals, bodhrán, percussion); Gwendolyn Snowdon (vocals, Indian harmonium, bouzouki); Patrick Broekema (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, low whistle, backing vocals); Corné van Woerdekom (violin, backing vocals, percussion) and Evert Willemstijn (double bass). Their origins go way back to 2010 when Dieke and Corne, both studying at Leiden University, met Patrick and Gwendolyn at folk sessions held every two weeks in Cafe the Tregter in Leiden at the time. (Sessions that owner Marius van der Ploeg kept organizing until 2017 when he finally retired after 25 years.) The four band members found each other in their love of Celtic folk, but from the very start were not afraid to incorporate new styles and instruments.
You could say the band was an instant hit in the folk scene, playing on the Folk Battle finals and at the
both in 2011, only a year after their first official band picture was published. Followed by
in 2012 and 2013, the Gothic & Fantasy Fair in Rijswijk 2013 (now known as the
Fantasy Fest) ,
Arcen in 2014 and to top it all off their first
Castlefest in 2015!
In 2013 Finvarra released their first album, simply called Finvarra, filled with eleven lovely European
folk songs. European, because the band combined well known Celtic folk traditionals like The Well Below
The Valley and The Cliffs Of Moher, with more Balkan influenced songs like The Wind That Shakes The Barley or Jovano Jovanke/Ciuleanda, and even their own interpretation of that famous
song: The Battle Of Evermore.
In 2017 the band announced they would be back in the studio, and then it went rather quiet around Finvarra. A silence that was suddenly broken early this year with the message I quoted above, announcing both the birth of the new album and the end of Finvarra as a band.
Lanterne starts as a warm blanket. The first song Banks of The Edisto is a touching ballad, featuring not only Dieke’s warm, slightly jazzy vocals, but also Patrick’s pleasant guitar and Corné’s lovely violin solos. The original is by the American folk singer-songwriter
recorded on her 2006 album
Another Black Feather…For The Wings Of A Sinner.
(An album well worth listening to if you love American folk music, with touches of jazz, Americana, and the occasional influences of raw 60’s protest songs, but I digress.) Dayna Kurtz recorded Banks Of The Edisto as a ‘small’ banjo and vocal ballad, Finvarra made it sound much richer, more orchestral and gave the song a real Celtic folk feel. Both, I have to say, are lovely versions.
With Finvarra’s Song, we keep that strong Celtic orchestral feel. Finvarra, together with
Alain Labrie (also known for his flamenco band Labryénco),
who recorded and produced the album, really managed to give Lanterne an overall wonderful and rich sound, very cleverly working with stereo effects and delicate touches of musical decorations at unexpected places to achieve that. Gwendolyn’s powerful welsh folk voice cuts right through all this richness, creating a wonderful contrast within the song that makes it even more powerful.
Listening carefully I can’t help spotting the slightly Spanish sounding acoustic guitar chords, some Mediterranean flavours crawling in or the clear Eastern European violin solos spicing up this Celtic folk song. Something that clearly continues on the instrumental A Bruxa/Flatbush Waltz. The guitar and violin melodies lead my mind to a place somewhere between northern France and Andalusia. On a warm evening under a star-filled sky.
This is actually the main difference between this record and Finvarra’s first album. On the first CD, the different influences were clearly divided over single songs Some sounding Celtic, some French, and some clearly eastern orientated. On Finvarra’s latest record all those influences have gelled together into one single sound, making Lanterne sound much more coherent. Another difference is the lead role Dieke took as a singer. Besides Banks Of The Edisto she also sings the lead on the Spanish sounding True Unfaithful Love and the absolutely beautiful ballad Motherland, a true gemstone in my opinion. Easily one of my favourite songs on Lanterne. Dieke’s low, warm and jazzy voice works SO well with the European folk style Finvarra is now playing. listening to this I can’t help but hope that somewhere in the future Finvarra will come together one more time, either to play live for us all or even to record new music. The way the musicians fit together in these songs is pure magic.
The instrumental Whiskey & Ouzo tells it all actually. On Lanterne Finvarra successfully blends the Celtic world with the Mediterranean, giving true meaning to the term European folk.
I have nothing more to say really, this is a must-have album for all who love folk music. It is as simple as that. Still hesitating? Put on the title song Lanterne and let Gwendolyn win you over herself. Another wonderful song on a wonderful record of a wonderful band.
It is so sad to see them go, but I am so happy they leave us while they are ahead. Best giving away present I have had in a loooooong time.
– Anna Schürmann
– Eline spek, early band picture (2010)
– Duane Teske, official band photo (2013)
– Finvarra studio picture
In Vino Veritas – Grimorium Magi (2019)
I came into the magical world of Castlefest, Elfia, MPS, and all the music that comes with it through medieval re-enactors. Even before I met my German girlfriend I already had a love for the Mittelalter metal of
and the medieval rock of
so it was a no-brainer that Anna took me to a Mittelalter market as soon as she had the chance.
It was on those markets that I discovered the cheerful sound of bands like
Medieval street musicians playing jaunty songs on big drums, shepherd’s pipes, hurdy-gurdy, and violin, quite often with funny stories in between, entertaining the crowd and the re-enactors alike. Since then I have discovered that every re-enactment scene in every country has those bands. I’m thinking of bands like
in the Netherlands,
in Denmark, or
In Vino Veritas
in Italy. And it is the latter band that this review focuses on.
Their 2014 album Baccabundi is a pure celebration of medieval fun, filled with classics like Ai Vist A Lo Lop, Tourdion, Bache Bene Venies, and Saltarello, but also original material such as my personal favourite Dracodanza. So when I received my copy of Grimorium Magi, I was getting myself ready for another bit of fun medieval time travelling. Well, not this time, not quite.
Ai Vist A Lo Lop by In Vino Veritas from their third album Baccabundi
In Vino Veritas are a medieval pagan folk band from Carrara, Italy. The band formed in 2010 and since then they have recorded 3 albums and a DVD: the sold-out debut album Ludicantigas, the also sold out DVD Bestiarium, the 2014 record Baccabundi and the new CD Grimorium Mari. The band calls themselves a medieval pagan folk band and indeed, on those early albums you will find original compositions as well as medieval traditionals, focusing on pagan themes and the goliardic tradition *).
On their DVD and live show Bestiarium, In Vino Veritas push their concept one step further, stating themselves that: ‘Bestiarium is our new show about beasts and mythological animals, inspired by the medieval bestiaries and by the tradition of the itinerant masked bards, reminding of the traits of gargoyles sculptures.‘
While introducing the new album In Vino Veritas already warned their fans that it would be something different. ‘A new sound, both ancient and modern, psy folk, trance folk, pagan folk, world fusion, and much more!’
Well, you can’t say they didn’t warn you. 🙂
The first bars of Serpens Mundi are what we are used to: a cool violin riff, hurdy-gurdy, and ‘normal’, although modern-sounding, drums. But then comes a modern bass guitar and odd spacey keyboard effects, giving the song a totally different vibe. Still cheerful and fun, but modern, very modern.
As I’m listening Serpens Mundi is drifting between medieval music and Eastern European / Arabian world music, with a very strong dance vibe.
Precatio Terrae continues in that style: a strong bass guitar riff, modern drums, mixed with a traditional melody reminiscent of the Renaissance played on the nyckelharpa, and Latin lyrics. You could call it Renaissance disco music and, although it sounds so wrong, it works. I never knew it, but the energy of medieval dance music and that of modern Italo disco fits like a glove. The
harp solo halfway through the song is just the icing on the cake.
This band mix the two worlds together so very cleverly. In Danza Del Troll for instance: a lovely nyckelharpa and flute melody, again totally Renaissance in feel, where the sound of the keys of the nyckelharpa become part of the rhythm section under it. So clever. A trick the group uses again in Benandanti.
In Vino Veritas does with medieval music what
did with Celtic folk, or
did with Scandinavian folk, fusing it in a very clever way with modern dance music. It might be a shock to the system for the purists, but let them headline at any pagan folk or medieval festival and you’ve got a huge party on your hands.
I am not gonna pick up every song on this album, that is up to you, but I can guarantee that you won’t sit still listening to songs like Taranis (medieval folk meets 70’s disco), or Mabinogi (Swedish folk meets Italo disco), the slightly jazzy Mezunemusus (hello
jazz saxophone), or my favourite on this CD Gargoyle (medieval folk meets dance classics).
With Grimorium Magi, In Vino Veritas did exactly what they promised they would: create a musical adventure ride, a unique balance between old and modern dance music. The songs are catchy and fun, inviting you to dance and sing. Renaissance Italo disco made to party. And as I party on I invite you all to do the same thing. Get this album, open up your windows and doors and let this music fill the warm summer air. If we can’t have a festival season this year, why not create our very own all together? Let this record be the soundtrack under it.
Editor: Iris de Wolf
*) according to the
Goliards were: “wandering students and clerics in medieval England, France, and Germany, remembered for their satirical verses and poems in praise of drinking and debauchery. The goliards described themselves as followers of the legendary Bishop Golias: renegade clerics of no fixed abode who had more interest in rioting and gambling than in the life of a responsible citizen.
Rachel Croft – Hours Awake (2019) review
Every week Ilona gives me an update of the music that she has added to the CeltCast radio stream, and every week I listen to what’s new, and which records I personally would love to put a spotlight on. It only took a few seconds of listening to the opening track Old Climbing Tree of
debut CD Hours Awake for me to decide that yes, this most definitely will be on the review list. What an A-MA-ZING voice. What a song. I simply love it!! That was the easy part, but then came the harder bit: writing a review.
And so the adventure started. First listening to the album a couple of times, having a look at the booklet for some more info, and last but not least going to Rachel’s website for the last details that I needed to write a nice introduction – or so I thought. Because if you really want to write something about Rachel Croft’s background you have to dig deep. I found no biography, no interview, no Wikipedia entry, nothing. It didn’t matter which angle I tried, I drew a blank. Until I desperately started searching for videos I could use on YouTube. That’s where I finally managed to puzzle a wee bit of her story together. With a big thank you to early fan Martin Waring, who recorded several of the earliest performances that Rachel did in her hometown of York.
As far as I have been able to find out, Rachel Croft is a young singer-songwriter from York. She started her career in her hometown doing open mic performances, gigs in local establishments, in the University of York – where she also studied- and busking on the streets of her hometown. It was in 2014 that Martin Waring, a local photographer, spotted Rachel performing in the streets of York, something he had hoped for after seeing her at an open mic performance. And he recorded her playing the song Songbird, a cover of American blues and jazz singer
Rachel Croft performing Songbird in York, 2014. Recorded by Martin Waring
In the following year he kept track of her and recorded some lovely street performances of her doing classic pop songs such as
Sting’sFields of Gold,
Taylor Swift’sDear John and a really powerful version of
Sam Smith’s Stay With Me. But she also sings a beautiful version of
folk anthem Song for Ireland and the Irish classic The Fields of Athenry. In a studio performance she did for the
Pear Tree Sessions
in 2015 she also recorded two folk classics: The Fields of Athenry again and also The Wild Mountain Thyme. Look them up, they are stunning performances.
In 2016 videos of Rachel’s singer-songwriter street performances kept popping up on YouTube, but also a video of
The Croft Mullen Band,
where she is performing theDuke Ellington
classic It Don’t Mean a Thing together with pianist
: a jazzy song she also nails!
In November 2017 Rachel’s very first single, Only Dreams (a song that luckily also found its way on Hours Awake) came out. She wrote it herself and recorded it with the help of Rachel Brown on cello, Emlyn Vaughan on double bass, bandmate Karl Mullen on piano and synth and
on electric guitar. The latter also responsible for recording, mixing and co-producing it. (Most of them also helped out recording Hours Awake, but I’m getting ahead of myself now.)
Only Dreams is a stunning, stunning song, that takes the best of her pop, singer-songwriter and jazz background. It is a beautiful guitar ballad. It reminds me of
Chris Isaac’sWicked Games, also a fragile yet powerful ballad.
When you only listen to the melody and instruments, Only Dreams is already beautiful, the subtle cello, piano and keys with over it this deep-cutting, soul-jerking, yet still fragile slide guitar notes. But the biggest selling point of Only Dreams is Rachel’s voice. Her vocals are stunning. Plain and simple! Her voice is deep, rich, oozing with soul, and she has perfect control over it. It is hard to describe her voice. Take the deep, rich sound of
Vaya Con Dios‘
Dani Klein, the soul voice of
the singer-songwriter qualities of the early
(at the time of her debut 19) and the rich seventies feel of 70’s stars like
Karen Carpenter or
Helen ‘I am Woman’ Reddy.
Then YouTube went quiet, so I had to go on Facebook. In December 2017 Rachel announced that she had started recording new material with Dan Webster for a full-length album. 95% made possible through crowdfunding, according to a grateful Rachel in the booklet of Hours Awake.
On January 8th, 2018, she performed on BBC Radio York in the Introduction Show hosted by Jericho Keys, and in November 2018 she toured The Netherlands for the first time – and if I’m not mistaken that could well have been her first tour outside of Britain.
In February of 2019, Hours Awake finally came out. This was followed by more and more performances in AND outside of Great Britain. One of them was another short tour in The Netherlands that also brought her to
on September the 22nd, where Ilona and Alex saw her perform falling in love with her music on the spot. A love they happily passed on to me, hence this review.
Hours Awake, a wonderful album
It is not hard to fall in love with Rachel’s music, though. As I said, it already starts with the first notes of Old Climbing Tree.
A deep and powerful string intro makes this song come closest to the music we normally play at CeltCast. Together with the tribal drums, it could be the intro to a
song if it wasn’t for those warm soulful vocals of Rachel coming in, somewhere between Joss Stone, Dani Klein and
Old Climbing Tree is the most Celtic of the songs on Hours Awake: most of the songs hover somewhere between singer-songwriter material, American folk and the contemporary pop music made by artists like Adele – they are jazzy, deeply rooted in musical history, and yet sound modern, contemporary.
It is almost impossible to name one highlight. Hear Me, the 70’s style In Blue or Rainier Day, the jazzy Don’t Feel like Holding On with its lovely violin melody weaving through it, 6,000 miles, they are all equally beautiful singer-songwriter ballads.
If I had to choose my favourites I would pick Can’t Replace Your Perfect, a soulful gospel ballad that wouldn’t look out of place on a Joss Stone or a Croft Mullen band album (yes, Rachel and Karl Mullen still perform together), the powerful opener Old Climbing Tree and of course the wonderful first single Only Dreams. Rachel is on her very VERY best in that song, with a voice so rich and warm that it is capable of melting the chocolate ice cream in your refrigerator.
This young lady has a great career ahead of her. Trust me, in a few year’s time she will be huge, so go see her next time she is performing at Elfia, you won’t regret it. Not at all!
Editor: Iris de Wolf
sleeve art: D. Somme
picture: Rachel Croft
Video of Songbird posted with kind permission of Martin Waring