Rachel Newton sings and plays harp with The Shee and The Emily Portman Trio. How she ever found time to write, record and even produce her solo debut we may never know, but we should be very glad she did. The Shadow Side is an album of traditional English and Gaelic song, with instrumental pieces composed by Rachel. Staunch support is provided by Kris Drever on vocals, guitar and mandolin, and Mattie Foulds on percussion.
In the opening ballad, Lady Diamond, harp and percussion provide a sparse background that supports Rachel’s wistful vocal style perfectly.
Kris Drever’s contributions to the album are many and varied, but never more clearly identifiable than in Green Willow. In harmony, Rachel and Kris’s voices are beautifully matched, both having that remarkable melancholic air that suits the darkness of traditional ballads so well. Rachel’s arrangement for Must I Be Bound somewhat turns the tables on the song’s dramatic story, with the theatre provided more by the tense, striking harp and fiddle combination.
Traditional Gaelic airs are in for something of an awakening too. ‘S Toigh Leam Cruinneag Dhonn Nam Bo is gritty and immediately reminiscent of Martyn Bennett’s Glen Lyon song cycle. In an uncompromisingly modern approach, contrasted by a more traditional vocal, harp and electro-harp provide bass and rhythm along with acoustic guitar. Am Bruadar Ud a Chunnaic Mi closes the album with an exquisite vocal performance backed by a minimalist harmonium.
Despite her appealing style and undeniable ability, Rachel’s vocal skill has to play second fiddle (she plays that too) to her prowess on harp and electro-harp. Rung 2 is the first of the instrumental tracks on the album. It opens as a light solo dance before embarking on a more dramatic phase with percussion and guitar before Kris Drever’s guitar ambles pleasantly around the harp’s skipping melody. The Discobeat is far from anything Disco with its eerie, sinister sounding harp strings. The title, however, soon makes sense as the tune develops and the bassy harp is joined by locomotive percussion.
The Last Minute / The Groupie / Height Of Rudeness – The only official ‘set’ on the CD comprises a trio of tunes with solo harp again being joined by guitar as the pace builds. This set puts a very affirmative stamp on Rachel’s virtuosity. The Shadow Side exemplifies a more gentle aspect of Rachel’s compositions while Soundboards And Sockets is an enthralling exploration of the art of combining harp, electro-harp and percussion. With irresistible beats and cadences of sound, both acoustic and electronic, this track delights beyond words.
In fact, the whole album delights beyond words. There’s something for everyone in here – innovative harp/electro-harp loops and experiments; the darkest of traditional ballads; soothing Gaelic song and enchanting vocal performances. With The Shadow Side, Rachel Newton has accomplished something quite remarkable and released an album that heralds the emergence of an exceptional talent.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The Shadow Side is released on 2nd July and acan be pre-ordered via bandcamp here