I have to declare seeing Treacherous Orchestra twice in the last few months, once packed onto the stage of London’s Borderline, which was only just big enough to contain them, and again at the Great British Folk Festival at Butlin’s in Skegness. Both times they were superb, but at the latter, they played on Sunday afternoon, a fairly lowly billing, which frankly they made a mockery of. Their high energy, euphoric sound should have closed the show. Perhaps they still have work to do in persuading promoters and bookers that their Celtic Connections sell-out success translates south of the border. The goodly numbers gathered in front of the stage, myself included, bouncing up and down and swaying along are a sure sign that it does, so if you’re in charge of a booking a line-up anywhere, take note and most importantly get yourself a copy of Grind to confirm just how good this combo are.
At the heart of the band are two extremely talented pipers, Ali Hutton and Ross Ainslie who both hail from Perthshire. I’m sure I’ve probably admitted before that not long hence, for me the idea of the pipes was more to induce a shudder than a shiver of pleasure. But there are so many great players around and bands like the Treacherous Orchestra who make a virtue of their sound, that I find myself completely won over. Ali and Ross, in common with many Scottish pipers acknowledge a debt to the late Gordon Duncan, a man whose instrumental, rhythmic and compositional skills have provided seemingly boundless inspiration. Both Ali and Ross are equally adept on whistles, which at least in part, tempers the fiery nature of their place in the band. Ali also plays acoustic guitar on Grind.
Naturally enough the piping duo are surrounded by an equally talented crew of musicians. There’s the twin fiddle attack of Adam Sutherland and Innes Watson, both acknowledged as amongst the best of their generation. Adam is from the Highlands and Innes from the lowland Borders, so have distinctive styles that none the less fuse with one purpose in the Treacherous Orchestra.
Also from the northern regions come Box maestro John Somerville, who draws on his mother’s Czech heritage as well as the Highland masters with whom he learnt. Drummer Fraser Stone meanwhile is a Speysider, so a little south of John, but a powerhouse with a wide range of influences built up since getting a plastic drum kit for Christmas as a child.
Heading further South to Kilmarnock and Dunblane we pick up guitarist Barry ‘Spad’ Reid and Bassist Duncan Lyle. Barry is another who has been playing since childhood, while Duncan has combined his love of playing with learning his way around a studio and so is responsible for the recording and production here. He also plays synthesiser and can switch between acoustic and electric bass as needed.
There’s an Irish contingent as well with Martin O’Neill, the former All Ireland and then All Britain Bodhrán champion and Kevin O’Neill, who plays flute and whistles and is a musical brother rather than sibling, both having family ties. A more recent émigré however is Éamonn Coyne, a superb banjo player, much admired on these pages for his partnership with Kris Drever. Despite their varied geographical roots, the one thing that they all share is meeting on the Glasgow session scene, with the band coalescing around a weekly ceilidh at the Walkabout bar.
Although boasting an 11 strong line-up, there are still guest appearances from Steve Byrnes on acoustic guitar on one track and an enhanced string section, with Seonaid Aiteken and Megan Henderson on violins and Feargus Heatherington on Viola. To complete the credits, I mentioned above that Duncan produced the album, mostly using his own home studio, but Barry and Ali are also credited with co-production. The writing meanwhile is mostly shared between, Ali, Adam, Barry, Innes and John, with just one tune from outside of the band, from the pen of Brian Finnegan, used as the middle part of one of the tune sets.
Of course the one thing not in the massed ranks of Treacherous Orchestra is a singer, so this is all instrumental, not that that is a disadvantage. For one thing it gives them an immediate point of difference from another similar sized English combo, for another their combined musical skills really are off the charts. As good as they are live, there is so much subtlety in their playing that Grind is a welcome chance to sit back and take it all in. It’s a big sound all right, rich and vibrant waves rush over you, but Treacherous Orchestra also capable of surprising delicacy and pinpoint precision.
The steady rise of the opener The Long Count is a thing of graceful beauty, getting a gentle lift from a percussive beat around a minute in, before flutes and whistles lock into increasingly complex patterns. There’s a sudden gear-shift with some crunching power chords about two thirds through the almost seven minutes of the track, signalling a ramping up of the musical tension, before the climactic release. By the time it’s finished, just about every instrument at their disposal has played its part in some way and yet, despite the obvious intricacy, it all sounds so effortless and joyful.
Masters simply builds on the climactic crunch of the guitar riff before allowing the pipes to take centre stage atop a rock solid beat, that still manages to throw the odd slip with a skip here and there and a rhythmic complexity had me with my shoes and socks off trying to compute the permutations. Somewhere in the middle I was counting sevens, although I’m not nearly musically confident enough to call it.
Fuzztones and dizzying polyrhythmic complexity continue through the intro of Halcyon Days, before the tune settles into something more in tune with its title. The wistful air is taken up by the accordion and flute, before banjo and a sumptuous dance around the upper registers of the bass guitar spiral around and around, setting off some deft interplay between the fiddles. Once more things shift up a peg in the middle of the tune and the instruments build into an ever more complex matrix of interweaving patterns.
Unsurprisingly the album favours the up-tempo, but each of the next three tracks does so in very different ways. Hounds has the skirl of pipes before transforming itself into an outrageously fleet and funky workout that’s surprisingly light on its feet. Banger features some outstanding acoustic bass work and some angular stabs of Gypsy violins, before setting into something more mid-tempo, although the constant shifts twist the track ever tighter towards a vertiginous climax that rises, dips and finally soars. The Sly One starts off like something flown in from the club tent, with big stabbing chords. It drops away suddenly twin fiddles locked into an almost Balkan groove, before the guitar ups the grunge quotient again and the banjo locks onto the fiddles with laser guided precision, a trick repeated by the accordion. The mood in the middle darkens before the collected instrumental power of the orchestra guides us out of the mists towards an urgent climax.
It’s a headlong rush that perfectly sets up the epic title track, with the oblique rise creating an ambient interlude amidst the mayhem, serving as a prefix for the brooding majesty of Grind. It’s epic in every way, sounding for all the world as if it was recorded in Fingal’s Cave, the sound booming out and echoing through the bens and glens, bouncing from loch to shipyard and setting up a tornado around the industrial heartlands of Glasgow. It’s a work of unbelievable power and emotional depth.
After that what could be better than time to reflect and Numbers provides a blissful if bubbling opportunity to do exactly that, having more in common with Steve Reich or classical minimalism at first. But this being the final track, you just know there’s going to be a twist and the Orchestra don’t disappoint as we hit an exultant, triumphant finale that brings another wave of ecstatic submission to the overwhelming power of this supremely talented band. Therein lies the rub, if you surrender to this band, then they can take you anywhere.
In many ways Treacherous Orchestra live up, at least in part to their name. Although the constant shifts and the playing with form are thrill-a-minute exhilarating rather than outright dangerous or devious, they are genuinely symphonic and Grind is conceived on a grand scale. Yet this music is also played with intricate attention to detail, an intimate knowledge of the instruments of choice and a total trust in each others ability. They have it all and then some and Grind is pure, unadulterated, delirious joy.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out 16 Feb. 2015 via Reveal Records
Click here to Pre-Order a Special Edition (& signed art print)of Grind via their website
Tour Dates: http://www.treacherousorchestra.com/tour/