When Shooglenifty coined the term ‘acid croft’ around 25 years ago, it was either an attempt to pigeon hole their music, or a tongue in cheek swipe at the media habit of attempting the very same. Quite possibly both. The fusion of club beats and traditional airs pioneered by Shooglenifty, Martyn Bennett and Afro Celt Sound System defied categorization. The label has stuck, but Shooglenifty, while producing an instantly recognisable sound, still aren’t short of surprises. On their seventh studio album, The Untied Knot, they’ve shown that their mix of innovation, tradition and fine musicianship continues to serve them, and their audience well.
From the opening notes of The Untied Knot/The Fall/Mile Marbhaisg Air A’ Ghaol we have a new dimension to Shooglenifty’s sound with Ross Ainslie making the first of a few guest appearances. A sleepy low whistle / fiddle duet ensures the album captivates from the outset and we move towards a typically enlivening set, building around a joyous melody…already we’re into that potent and seductive Shooglenifty groove.
The question in many minds, though, is how can Shoolgenifty create a new album that will achieve the twin task of pleasing die-hard fans while adding a new dimension to their sound? Enter Gaelic vocalist, Kaela Rowan. The band have never taken the, arguably, predictable step of incorporating Gaelic vocals into their recordings before – but Kaela is no ordinary vocalist. Her smoky, passionate delivery has graced albums by Mouth Music, The Bevvy Sisters and The Love Boat Big Band; and her singular approach to vocals has been more recently influenced by musical adventures in Rajasthan. Her short and compelling contribution to the opening holds promise for the rest of the album, before electric guitar and bass give it some punch and an ethereal chant closes the set. Kaela adopts a hypnotic, breathless vocal for the scolding Do Chrochadh A Thoill Thu, Thoill Thu leading to a more traditional form for Nighean Rudh’ Bhàn Bh’aig Dòmhnall Ruadh Piobair before The Spice Of Life closes the set with a perfect example of why the dance floor fills whenever Shooglenifty play.
Of course, there are plenty more surprises on the journey around this album. The Highway Carpark opens like a bid for a Tarantino theme tune but very rapidly settles into the kind of trance outing that only Shooglenifty can produce. The generic title of Somebody’s Welcome To Somewhere might imply a generic pipe tune but “Somebody’s” is far from that, and is every bit as dreamy and entrancing as we’d expect. Add the Shooglenifty strings (including a guest re-appearance from Conrad Ivitsky on bass) to Ross Ainslie’s masterful piping and we have melody to make anyone feel welcome. The Arms of Sleep provides a similarly gentle pace, featuring Luke Plumb’s mandolin and a deliciously reverbed, throaty guitar from Malcolm Crosbie. There are darker, subterranean tones for The Scorpian/The Devil’s Breath Hornpipe, and Samhla Reel/Scolpaig provides more of the full Shoogle effect; with Malcolm’s guitar adding to the rhythm before losing itself among the joyful vocal chant.
It’s impossible to write about this album, though, and not concentrate on Kaela Rowan’s vocals. Peaches/Monkswell Road/Meal Do Bhrògan takes the whole experience up a notch, with keyboards, electric guitar, percussion and Kaela’s vocals all in a hypnotic frenzy. The High Road To Jodhpur is a stand-out track, with a soul-stirring fusion of Konnakol vocal percussion and Puirt à beul, partnered with James Mackintosh’s thundering percussion; but Ruidhleadh Mo Nighean Donn/Am Buachaille Dubh Fionnghal provides the most alluring of Kaela’s vocal contributions, with a brown haired lass taking a light-stepping, joyful journey towards a dark-haired shepherd.
Fitzroy Crossing closes the album with an Antipodean inspired blend of verse, melody, dance and the sheer, undiluted exuberance that is Shooglenifty.
Shooglenifty have been at the top of their game since they took the trad music scene by storm 25 years ago. They continue to whip up a frenzy in performance, and never fail to innovate in the studio. With The Untied Knot they continue to blaze their particular, spectacular trail and give every indication that the journey is set to continue.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The Untied Knot is Out Now via Shoogle Records
Order it via Amazon