In 1937, Scottish author Neil Gunn gave up his job, sold his house and bought a boat. He set off on a sea voyage around the West coast of Scotland and after writing about his experiences and the communities he visited, Gunn went on to become one of Scotland’s best known and prolific authors; writing modern classics such as The Silver Darlings and The Well At The World’s End.
In May this year, Mike Vass, inspired by Gunn’s account of the journey (Off in a Boat), set off to retrace the voyage, visiting the same communities, performing live, and drawing inspiration for his new album along the way.
Since his success with String Theory in 2010, Mike has been solidly building his reputation as a composer, arranger and performer. In The Wake Of Neil Gunn sees Mike take those strengths in new directions and open himself up to new experiences.
To anyone familiar with Mike’s work the opening bars of Settled in Clay will seem instantly recognisable. That soft tenor guitar, built in gentle layers, is as appealing as ever. But there’s surprise, too, as a fuller, more ample sound begins to emerge. Rich bass from Euan Burton and a very welcome oboe from Jennifer Port add a sense of excitement – of something new and wonderful happening.
These elements, along with the contribution from The Cairn String Quartet and lain Hutchison’s production, have created a lush sound that’s happily accommodated by such a wide concept. And the album has still more surprises in store. Sphere Music sets off on a different tack altogether: sampled coastguard radio and a sustained use of bass and percussion work well in adding some pace, contrasting with the gentle flow of the woodwind.
In Fused Dark, Hamish Napier joins on flute to open a story that’s soon disturbed by a primal, distorted bass, and a building tension in the string section. Similar elements make another appearance in Cold Iron.
Providing a more gentle aspect, The Very Thing combines guitar, flute and oboe with strong strings in an expansive sound. Quiet Voices, dedicated to Mike’s niece and nephew, is a lovely, layered lullaby on guitar with a subtle cello in support until the strings sweep alongside. One Common Bond is a little more sombre leading to a fuller, richer, more dramatic sound. It’s all so warm and satisfying – music you want to gorge yourself on (but it’s certainly good for you).
It’s the more adventurous aspects of the album that really make the listener sit up and take notice, though. The SOS opening of The Lock Keeper, a short, dramatic track where the oboe takes the message and builds a theme from it. Or Heave and Roll, where Mike’s experimental on-stage looping during his last Decemberwell tour has been refined for the studio and used to tremendous effect. And throughout – the pulsing, irrepressible bass.
Although full of contrasts, the album comes together well – with just the right balance of familiarity and adventure. Its maritime conception is clear; it can be wide and dramatic as any seascape, and as soothing as the most sheltered of moorings.
“While we stood there looking to the west, we saw the Hebrides, low down on the horizon, like a band of purple cloud. Despite ourselves, we were held.
In that evening light, dimming through fire and purple to the illimitable grey wings of the sea, that autumn of the day with April in its breath, was all the West of legend…”
So wrote Neil Gunn, the evening before making a purchase that would change his life. This album has clearly been a life changing experience for Mike Vass too. It has the conceptual approach Mike took in String Theory – with exacting performances and intricate structures; there’s also the elemental lavishness of Decemberwell. Additionally, Mike has Neil Gunn at his shoulder – his spirit of adventure, his eye for a dramatic landscape, his ear for a worthy tale. Even all the track titles are taken from the book.
In The Wake Of Neil Gunn has taken Mike’s music in new directions. Island imagery and the pull of the ocean are written large across the score sheet; the swell of the tide lifts and drops the senses, the musical vision intrigues. It’s a journey well worth taking.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Out Now via Unroofed Records
Innes Watson and Mike Vass Tour News
Innes Watson and Mike Vass are heading out on tour this month. Innes is best known for his work with Scottish supergroup Treacherous Orchestra and renowned Scots Funk band Man’s Ruin.
Together they explore traditional and contemporary music on acoustic and tenor guitars creating a dynamic sound that ranges from pin-drop slow airs to fiery flatpicked reels. The traditional material blends seamlessly with their own award winning compositions.
They debuted their unique live performance at the Ullapool Guitar Festival 2013 to a discerning audience of guitar aficionados and brought the house down.
Innes and Mike are both previous winners at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards; Innes for Instrumentalist of the Year and Mike for Composer of the Year.
30 Nov – St Andrews Hall, Callander (afternoon workshop and evening concert)
04 Dec – House concert, Edinburgh
05 Dec – The CatStrand, New Galloway
06 Dec – The Bowlers Bar, Glasgow
07 Dec – Three villages hall, Arrochar
12 Dec – British Legion, Nairn
14 Dec – Glenurqhuart Public Hall, Drumnadrochit
19 Dec – Strathearn Arts Space, Crief