I’ll make no bones about it, I’ve been a Breabach enthusiast since first hearing them in 2008 at the late, lamented Gosport and Fareham Easter Festival. They emotionally, and almost literally, blew everyone away when both sets of highland pipes were cranked up in a very modestly sized upstairs hotel room that served as the festival’s late night club. Since then Breabach’s journey, both geographically and musically, has been as exciting and varied as their performances. With the release of Astar, the word means journey in Scottish Gaelic, they are very consciously making use of the fruits of their travels. The music takes inspiration from the sights and sounds of the places they’ve visited and from their recent collaborations in Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Québec. Indeed, the album develops the collaborations by including musicians from those places as guests.
Setting themselves a specific goal for the overall feel of an album is becoming very much of a Breabach trademark. Bann, recorded in 2012, when the band had expanded to a five piece, set out to capture their live sound whilst still being studio based. For their 2013 release, Ùrlar, they gave themselves the task of selecting a set of tunes and songs that connected with each of the band members’ home areas. And so, to Astar, on which the band have found many and varied ways of creating music that remains true to their Scottish roots whilst allowing the influences they’ve accrued on their travels to permeate, sometimes subtly, sometimes very much to the fore.
The album begins with The Midnight Sun, a tune composed by James Mackenzie. He leads off on flute over Ewan Robertson’s guitar, Megan Henderson adding fiddle as the piece develops. It was written after James experienced the memorable sensations of midsummer within the Arctic Circle. The piece soon evokes the sense of timelessness that anyone who’s experienced 24-hour daylight will recognise whilst later the rhythm of Ewan’s guitar perhaps hints at what brought James to Tromsø, running the Midnight Sun Marathon. Straightforward links between places and the mood of a piece crop up throughout the album, the title of a piece by Megan, Farsund, is the name of a Norwegian town, so no surprise that Breabach have played the town’s festival. On this and several other tracks the Norwegian connection is strengthened by Olav Luksengård Mjelva adding Hardanger fiddle to the sound.
The White Sands of Jervis Bay also has the obvious link between place and mood, the composition, by Calum MacCrimmon and James Mackenzie, emerging after they visited the spectacular beaches of that part of New South Wales. But that is only one component of a track that derives from ties the band has developed with Australian traditional indigenous music and musicians on their tours. The Black Arm Band is a performing arts company that brings together indigenous and white Australian artists with the aim of both celebrating the tradition and, in their word, revolutionising, the future of indigenous culture. The White Sands of Jervis Bay begins with company member Yirrmal Marika singing a traditional song from Northern Australia accompanied by Mark Atkins on yidaki, the instrument perhaps better, though less accurately, known to most of us as a didgeridoo. The transition from the vocal to James and Calum’s melody, initially still underlain by the yidaki is so smooth it makes for a seamless amalgamation of two musical cultures.
Fruits of the band’s other collaborations in Australia and New Zealand have already been heard on several stages. The Boomerang Project brought together musicians and dancers from all three countries in 2014 producing a show that they toured at festivals and at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. The second track on the Astar album, Muriwai, is a product of this time, including lyrics in the Haka tradition composed and sung by New Zealander Scott Morrison.
The links between Scottish and Québecois music are rather more obvious, Breabach having toured with Québec band Le Vent du Nord on several occasions. So it’s no surprise they are contributors to Astar. Regrettably there’s only room for one track featuring them. Les Pieds Joyeux comprises three traditional tunes played in typical Breabach style featuring pipes, whistles and fiddle but with Olivier Demers adding his fiddle and the classic Québecois element, podorythmie, foot tapping in plain English. Although there’s the sound of tapping feet throughout, there’s a distinct change of style part way through, I suspect Megan gets in first with her step dancing before the podorythmie takes over. The track closes with a piece composed by Megan with all four members of Le Vent du Nord adding some Québec style mouth music.
In amongst all this crossing of musical borders are tracks that are pure Breabach. But, of course, it’s a Breabach that has had its horizons broadened and so, for example, it’s no surprise that, for the crescendo of The Last March, Mark Atkins’ yidaki makes an appearance. Astar is an album that truly reflects the journey that Breabach have been making over the last few years. They continue to show mastery of so many elements of their ‘home’ music, from the pipe reels and marches that have long been their signature style to the Gaelic songs that Megan Henderson brought to the band. Now, they are confidently incorporating the ‘foreign’ influences brought home from their travels and one can only guess where their musical journey will take them next. One thing’s for sure, I’ll willingly be going along for the ride. Give Astar a listen and, chances are, you’ll be coming along too.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Astar is released 11th March 2016 via Breabach Records
Order it via Amazon here.
Breabach are currently touring the UK to mark the launch of their new album. Head on over to their website to get those dates: