RANT – The Portage (Make Believe Records, MBR8CD)

The PortageThe quartet of superbly talented individual fiddle players – Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie – who in combination make up Rant, have just released their third album, The Portage.

Recorded over four days at Queen’s Cross Church in Glasgow (Charles Rennie Macintosh’s only completed church), the sound is airy, clean and wonderfully detailed. And from the moment the uplifting swirls of ‘Göran Berg’s’ curl up into the air before metamorphosing into its more melancholy companion piece, ‘Crow Road Croft’, it’s obvious that this album is something truly special.

The spaces between the notes make themselves felt in ‘Sir Ronald McDonald’s Reel’, as the snaking lead winds around a volley of plucking before a graceful downward swoop suddenly gets scooped up into the upwardly spiralling motif of ‘Johhny D’s’, served over a dark chocolate richness.

A change in mood comes with the measured and wistful ‘Now Westlin Winds’, before a sprightly ‘Annie Allan’ (with its dark colouring to the playing over an intriguing reggae syncopation) bridges into the Scandinavian ‘Hambo’, a tune with an altogether more classical edge, somewhat Strauss-like in its melodic ebb and flow.

‘Rosemarkie Man’ feels like a blustery walk along windswept Scottish coastlines, while ‘Arnt Ivar’s Polska’ is more stately, tenderly-twining embrace than lively dance tune. An angular prickliness opens ‘The Rescue Man’, warming up as it reaches the sprightly gallop of ‘Pam’s Hoose’. There’s a sensitive flourish to Andy Cutting’s ‘Altfechan’, as it spins out its central, gracefully climbing motif.

The spartan traditional lament of ‘Nach Truagh Mo Chàs’ (‘Hard Is My Fate’) is a tune of such intense mournfulness as to move even the hardest heart. Avoiding mawkishness, it makes for a real sustained hit of raw emotion, after which ‘The Portage’ very sensibly picks up gently. Tasting of salty sea air on a chilly bright day, it’s an affectionate and hopeful tune and a very fitting place to end the album.

Not a note feels out of place or unnecessary in the arrangements, and the performances are absolutely stunning. Whether writing their own tunes or arranging others’ work, Rant captivatingly weave together classical styles and the drive of traditional folk playing, all with an open, contemporary feel. The Portage is a flawless album of understated perfection.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.rantfiddles.com

‘Göran Berg’s/Crow Road Croft’:

RANT announce their third album

Rant

RANT is the meeting of four of Scotland’s finest fiddle players: two from the Shetland Islands and two from the Highlands.  Their third album, The Portage, was recorded over four days in the renowned Mackintosh Queen’s Cross, the only church in the world to be designed by architect, artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This space was the ideal setting to capture what RANT do best; showcasing the rich resonance of their four fiddles in various tunings and textures in a stark, honest recording.

​Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Lauren MacColl and Anna Massie join forces to create a sound which is both rich and lush, yet retaining all the bite and spark synonymous with a Scottish fiddle player. Using just their fiddles, they weave a tapestry of melodies, layers and sounds. Known for their work as soloists and with various bands, this is a celebration of the instrument they all have a passion for.

Since the release of their debut album RANT in 2013, which won them critical acclaim in the form of a Herald Angel Award for outstanding performance across all the Edinburgh Festivals , the band have made major festival and concert appearances across the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia. They provided strings for Julie Fowlis’ Gach Sguel album, and their music has been used for both BBC and ITV national television programmes.

Their live set reflects the years of honing their sound together and their love for their home areas of Shetland and the Highlands through the writing, repertoire and stories. The name The Portage comes from a composition of Bethany’s relating to her home village of Quarff in Shetland, which translates as ‘the portage’ in Old Norse.

Being located at a very narrow point of land on the islands, the area was long used for carrying boats and goods from the east coast (North Sea) to the west (Atlantic), avoiding a sea-journey of almost 40 miles. The artwork for The Portage is an original painting by Shetland-based landscape artist Ruth Brownlee.

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‘JT’s’ – live at Celtic Connections:

MIKE VASS – The Four Pillars (Unroofed Records UR005CD)

The Four PillarsThe four pillars of traditional Scottish music are, as you know, the air, the march, the strathspey and the reel. With this in mind, Mike Vass wrote the suite of music that became The Four Pillars for the 2018 Scots Fiddle Festival. He’s not greedy, though, and the album features three other fiddlers with Tom Gibbs on piano, Iain Sandilands on vibes and percussion and a string quartet whose fiddlers both play violins, of course.

I probably wouldn’t have begun with the Air section which features Lauren MacColl. ‘After Years’ and ‘The Ancient Day’ are beautiful tunes but slow and quite long and they might have worked better as a change of pace after the Strathspey section. Mike himself takes charge of the marches. The first is another slow tune, ‘A Handful Of Dust’ featuring himself on two fiddles while ‘From Regions Far Apart’ features all the supporting musicians. Again, it’s rather slow and if you’re looking for funeral marches both would do very well, although the vibraphone part in the latter might be rather incongruous.

Patsy Reid takes charge of the strathspeys. The first, ‘Martial Tunes’, is also rather stately, in the traditional manner rather than as music for dancing. ‘Thrown Away’ picks up the pace a little and builds up quite a head of steam by the end. ‘Torrent Of A Thing’ open with pizzicato fiddle and pizzicato viola, if I’m not mistaken, and involves all the players. It feels as though it belongs in a grand salon.

The reels are the province of Jenna Reid. ‘Frenzy In The Coda’ and ‘Under These Notes’ again involve the whole ensemble. As with all these pieces, Mike has followed the musical ‘rules’ but has taken the forms a step away from their original functions. This is not a record to put on for a ceilidh.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.mikevass.com

‘After Years’:

BLAZIN’ FIDDLES – The Key (Blazin’ Records BFCD2017)

The KeyAs is often the case I initially listened to The Key while driving and my first thought was that it seemed very restrained. Second time around it still seems that way, although “tight” and “controlled” might be better adjectives.

We all know how Blazin’ Fiddles can make a stage rock but this is a bit different. They start, as they must, with set of reels, ‘Break The Light’ and a set of jigs, ‘Double Rise’. Both are full of energy but allow solos to peek through. The third set, ‘The Black Pig’ opens with ‘McFall’s March’ written by Jenna Reid and initially soloed by the acoustic guitar of Anna Massie. Then the fiddles sweep in and I do mean ‘sweep’ – they arrive like an ocean tide, move through ‘Lucy Campbell’ and take the brakes off for ‘The Black Pig’ itself.

Next comes the first tune of the set to be written by band leader Bruce MacGregor. ‘Annie’s Waltz’ is a lilting fiddle duet underpinned by guitar and Angus Lyon’s piano which also opens ‘Picnic In The Sky’ linking the two tracks together. Here, a pipe march is mated with a reel by Debbie Scott and another by Matheu Watson. Ivan Drever wrote the air ‘The Rose Of St. Magnus’ which is performed as a duet by fellow Orcadian Kristan Harvey and Angus Lyon. It’s a gorgeous tune and about as mellow as Blazin’ Fiddles can possibly get but just as you might be drifting off they hit you with ‘The Ox’; a most appropriate title at this point in the programme.

‘The Beeswing’ is essentially a solo by Ruairidh Macmillan except that he’s accompanied by Angus and Annie. Now, we’re picking up the pace for ‘The Highlander’s Revenge’, another of Bruce’s tunes paired with a Jerry Holland reel featuring a bit of funky guitar and some wild fiddle playing. ‘The Silent Command’ is equally brash but the band slows the pace just a little for Hamish Napier’s ‘Wind Song’. The final set, ‘Harris Dance’, begins in proper Shetland fashion with a tune by Tom Anderson, wanders over the sea to Cape Breton and finally lands in the Hebrides for the title tune.

I think that The Key is probably the best of the Blazin’ Fiddles albums that I’ve heard, although that isn’t all of them. If there is a better one, tell me about it.

Dai Jeffries

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Blazin’ Fiddles live at Celtic Connections 2016:

RANT – Reverie (Make Believe Records MBR6CD)

ReverieIf you’re going to make music with a band that consists of just fiddles and violas you have to pretty sure of your ground otherwise it’s going to get rather dull.

Sure, Bethany Reid, Jenna Reid, Sarah-Jane Summers and Lauren McColl stretch the point by importing vocalists for two tracks but they import the best – Julie Fowlis and Ewan McLennan. The opening track, ‘JT’s’, written by Bethany makes a bold statement with almost staccato fiddle phrases leading into a sweeter restatement and then a rocking melody. The mood changes immediately with a set of two traditional tunes, ‘Miss Drummond Of Perth’s Favourite Scotch Measure’ – another great old title – which is given an almost eerie opening and ‘Strathbogie’s Toast’ from Niel Gow’s collection. ‘Dad’s 60th’ is another tune by Bethany, a bright march with echoes of older pieces hidden within it.

The first of the songs is ‘Mary’s Dream’. The words are by the 18th century Galloway poet, John Lowe’ and the tune is traditional – a variant of ‘The Parting Glass’. McLennan’s warm voice is complemented by almost tender fiddle parts. Julie Fowlis sings the other song, ‘Thug Thu Chonnlach As An T-Sabhal’, a strathspey tune with a very different feel. Her vocal dexterity with the Gaelic language is always a delight.

There are two pieces from James Scott Skinner who is always good value, two by Lauren and a couple of covers and the final track is an Icelandic hymn, ‘Fyrir Mig, Jesú, þoldir þú’, brought to the band by Jenna and rearranged by Bethany with an ethereal feel that’s almost chilling, bringing the album to a lovely close.

Dai Jeffries

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The promotional video:

BLAZIN’ FIDDLES – Thursday Night In The Caley (Blazin’ Records BRCD2011)

The unrestrained passion bursts forth from the string driven sound that is Blazin’ Fiddles and from the very first track “Fashion O’ The Lassies/Sound Of Mull/Janine’s Reel/The Storm” the enjoyment conveyed by each member contagiously transmits its way to the listener. In these times of notable recession it’s nice to find music so uplifting that it can’t help but bring a smile to the face of even the most jaundiced members of the public. Even without the charismatic flourishes from Catriona MacDonald but now utilising the services of the equally talented Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid and Anna Massie on guitar/fiddle the join is seamless for those of us that have been following the band’s career to date. Of course the main thrust of the recording features the fiddles of Bruce MacGregor, Allan Henderson and Iain MacFarlane packing an almighty punch and not to be outdone, the exuberant skills of Andy Thorburn’s honky-tonk piano accompaniment on James Hill’s wonderful hornpipe “The Golden Eagle” will, I’m sure be approved by musicians everywhere. All in all this is an energetic performance that should find its way onto the shelf of any self-respecting collector of ‘quality’ folk music.

PETE FYFE

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