Now there’s a provocative title from these two young Scottish lasses. But lest you think that the exceptional musicianship on display on The Devil Makes Three is the result of some dread filled female version of the Faustian pact or Robert Johnson’s crossroads encounter. It’s worth noting that Catriona Price and Esther Swift have already established themselves as two of the best, most adventurous and interesting young players on the current Scottish scene but have the track record and history of hard work to assuage any fanciful fears of devilish dealings. Besides which, they sing and play like angels.
Although they hail from different ends of Scotland the pair first came into each other’s orbit when Orcadian Catriona left home at the age of seventeen to complete her final two years schooling at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. Esther was already enrolled, having arrived from her Borders home in Peebles. Both had clearly excelled, having started making music at a young age. In fact Catriona started on the piano at 6 and took up the fiddle a year later. Almost inevitably much of her growing up was done in the thriving Orkney sessions and as a member of young fiddle group Hadhirgaan under the watchful tutelage of the renowned Douglas Montgomery.
Esther had an equally early start taking up violin and piano when she was 5, later joining the self same St Mary’s Music School as a chorister. After being utterly enchanted by a concert performance by Borders harpist Savourna Stevenson, she made the clarsach her instrument of choice. It took a few years of physical growth before Esther was able to adapt to the full sized pedal harp. As well as her schooling Esther also benefited from additional lessons from Catriona McKay, one of Scotland’s most ground breaking harpists and an obviously inspiring role model.
During their school years, both were involved in the orchestral scene, whilst always continuing to nourish their folk roots, and the disciplines play their equal part here. Catriona and Esther were members of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and Camerata Scotland. Catriona also became a leading player in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, performing at the BBC Proms on live TV, as well as becoming principal second violin with the NYO’s contemporary music ensemble the NYO Sinfonietta. Simultaneously, she was always involved in the folk scene, and in 2005 toured Germany with the Irish band Blue.
It was a year after the Irish tour, with the two of them now studying at the Royal Northern College Of Music and also sharing a flat, that Catriona and Esther joined forces as Twelfth Day. They finally released their debut album Northern Quarter in 2010. It was followed by a collaboration with Gaelic singer Joy Dunlop called Fiere (read the FRUK review here), which was based around the work of female Scottish poets. Their next CD was even more adventurous and the Speak From The Start EP, released last year, contained cover versions of the Morrissey song You’re The One For Me Fatty originally commissioned by BBC Radio Manchester, alongside songs from Blondie, Kanye West, Passion Pit and Twin Atlantic. Not your standard harp-fiddle duo fare by any means then.
All of this naturally enough feeds into The Devil Makes Three although Noise Show, the opening track, throws up another little surprise as they take the opening of the song a cappella, pushing the harmonic possibilities of the melody with the delightful blend of their voices. The song itself is a clever allegory for the changing face of the world and way that nature is inevitably subsumed by human activity, in this case particularly the birdsong and wilderness of Scotland. The layering of musical textures builds the intensity steadily and you are struck by the dramatic power of Esther’s harp, especially at the bottom end, as the strings are left to ring into the mix. Combined with Catriona’s expressive fiddle and the clever use of their interweaving voices to raise the tension, the song spirals ever upwards towards an electrifying conclusion.
Magic Circle returns us to calmer territory, with its plucked fiddle, harp and yet more gorgeous harmony singing, although this is another strikingly original composition. This time the piece is inspired by a painting of the same title by Alan Davie and the free-form association of words and phrases that popped into Catriona’s head as she sat and studied it for a while. Editing all of the notes down, the result captures the way that the mind is rarely still and wanders where it will, in a fragmentary and slightly surreal flood of fleeting detail.
The first of three beautiful instrumentals, Me And My Friend, follows. It starts with a wistful air and once more you marvel at the textures that the two can create with their instruments. Naturally enough the friends in question are Catriona and Esther and again the tune rises and falls, creating a genuine sense of the bond between them. There are some unusual harmonies between the harp and fiddle, once more pushing at the limits of the melody in an exciting and enticing way. In some ways, Swimming Safe explores similar territory in concept at least, this time valuing the support of family and friends. The final instrumental piece, Beaches, has a sense of nostalgia for childhood past and time spent around Scotland’s coastal resorts.
Although all three have a chamber music elegance in their virtuosity, they retain a folkish and also a distinctly Scottish feel, especially with the lead from Catriona’s fiddle’s. It’s the versatility of Esther’s harp, however, that opens the harmonic and rhythmic options that the girls have at their finger tips.
Those options are matched by the quality of the writing too, with great tunes and intriguing if not always obvious lyrical themes. Young Sir, however has a straightforward narrative thread and updates the folk tropes of a young maid falling for a rich man, as it ends with her nicking his posh car. The rest are somewhat more oblique with Shapeshifter being about the legend of the Selkie, a man by day and a seal by night. A City You Can See Out Of, is a great title and a song about strength in the face of adversity, although Catriona and Esther have been inspired particularly by the stories of women and Edinburgh in this case. Dusking is also inspired by that city, emerging from the long dark winter nights and into spring.
The title track is the one dip into the tradition, but here it’s an American song, more commonly known as Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby. It’s also the longest track on the album, but largely on account of the tune welded onto the end which features Esther using her clarsach as a makeshift percussion set sampled in the studio. It’s the expansive treatment of what is a slightly unsettling nursery rhyme that shows the strength of Twelfth Day, as again they bring several moods to bear, from a tender opening through a mounting tension into something more playful and finally a tightly coiled climax.
In some ways that song is the micro view of what The Devil Makes Three achieves as it plays through. The shifts in rhythm and focus, the glorious interplay between fiddle and harp that stretch the harmonic possibilities of the tunes, with Catriona and Esther singing clear above it all, adding yet more euphonic layers to the music. There’s also the constantly shifting moods and way that the track sets up what follows, as the end of the record through Beaches and into Dusking is just beautiful and serene. But like all of the best records it takes time to unlock the complexity of the contents and adjust to the ebb and flow of the music as it stirs and soothes by turn. Surrender to its charms you must, however, as it would be a sin not to.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Devil Makes Three is released 9th June 2014