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!