The Dead Rat Orchestra is a trio of musicians consisting of Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann. They are well known for their unconventional approach to music and their latest release ‘The Guga Hunters of Ness’ which originally took the form of a film score is the perfect example of them at their innovative best.
The Guga Hunters of Ness’ was a BBC documentary that was directed and produced by Mike Day. Mike was interested in the decline of traditions and crofting in the Outer Hebrides and he had read that the average age of a crofter was 70 so he was keen to document this disappearing world before it was all gone. It was whilst sailing and filming around the islands that he first heard of the Guga hunt and was amazed that it had persisted as a tradition for so long.
The Guga hunt is a controversial annual tradition that has continued for centuries, the first written record for which dates back to 1549. In the autumn of each year, a group of 10 men from Ness set sail for Sula Sgeir to kill a maximum of 2,000 young Gannets. The men remain on the island in stone bothys for two weeks before returning home with their catch. The journey to the island is dangerous and often made through high seas and storms.
As part of their preparation for scoring the film The Dead Rat Orchestra conducted extensive research into Hebridean folk song as well as old melodies from Ness with the help of Malcolm Taylor at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Their endeavours for creating and recording an authentic soundscape went well beyond the bounds of the commonplace when they converted a decommissioned LightShip (Light House Ship) on a tidal river in Essex into a recording studio. The acoustics in the studio changed with the rising and falling tide which must have helped them to create the incredible ambience that is felt throughout, the perfect reflection of the long silences in the film and the isolation of Sula Sgeir…as if on the very edge of the earth.
It would be pointless to shine the spotlight on any one track the overall experience would be lost without the hearing it as a whole, but one of the most surreal moments is when one of Mike Day’s field recordings of the Ness Church Choir psalm singing is used in the track ‘Saltslide’. The recording drifts in and out like the tide and conjures fleeting scenes of home alongside the remote loneliness of Sula Sgeir. Later, the growing acoustics and handclaps mark the end of a journey, a return home and celebration.
The album is one of the most moving and visionary pieces I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in a long time it embodies the rawness of a centuries old seafaring world with that of the modern…the one constant being the remote beauty and unforgiving landscape of Sula Sgeir…it is all captured here.
THE GUGA HUNTERS OF NESS is released on 9th JULY by CRITICAL HEIGHTS (offshoot of Fire Records), on VINYL, CD & DOWNLOAD
MON 9TH JULY CAFE OTO, DALSTON (screening) w. C JOYNES & THE CLOISTERS
WED 11TH JULY UNITARIAN CHURCH, CAMBRIDGE (screening)
THU 12TH JULY COLCHESTER ARTS CENTRE (screening) w. THE CLOISTERS
FRI 13TH JULY NORWICH (venue to be confirmed)
SAT 14TH JULY MODERN ART OXFORD, OCM
TUE 17TH JULY NIGHT & DAY CAFE, MANCHESTER
WED 18TH JULY THE OLD HAIRDRESSERS, GLASGOW