Multi-instrumentalist Hamish Napier has featured on many reviews on this site, such is the demand for his contributions on flute and piano his list of session and collaborative work is immense, and includes names like Mairearad Green, Margaret Bennett, Duncan Chisholm, Treacherous Orchestra, Mike Vass and Ross Ainslie. At last, with help from the Celtic Connections New Voices initiative, Hamish has been able to make the most of his skills as a composer for an album of his own work – The River.
Hamish grew up in Granton-on-Spey, just yards from the world-famous river. Hardly surprising, then, that its pervasive presence should inspire a collection of pieces, primarily for flute and piano, that reflect or comment on life on, in and around the river. Although this is no pastoral idyll, the delights of the opening Mayfly could easily tempt you to think so. Anyone who has ever been fascinated by the sight of the mayfly’s spring dance above a river will understand this energetic and urgent tumble of flute over keyboards. The multiple layers of impetuous drama and rhythm are as fascinating and hypnotic as the spectacle itself.
Hamish has been inspired, though, by just about every aspect of the river’s life that you could imagine. In the title track the sound of The River itself acts as a backdrop to the warmth of the rolling and tumbling piano. Sarah Hayes’ alto flute adds a voice that can be both wistful and melancholy. That soft texture is countered dramatically by a piercing, plaintive whistle which, in time finds its place within the theme… and the piano tumbles, rolls, flows. The album is a portrait, then, and it carries on with The Whirlpool, layered flute and Martin O’Neill’s bodhran combine in an irresistible round. There’s a definite Irish influence in this flute tune’s confident swagger.
However, there’s often an ill wind in the willows. In The Drowning of the Silver Brothers we move away from the natural wonder of the river, to a tragic story of its effect on its human inhabitants. Ghostly piano with a mournful sounding flute display a darker, mysterious side that isn’t always benevolent. As Andrea Gobbi’s production (Treacherous Orchestra) comes into its own; spectral effects and keyboards portray a darkness that goes back to the river’s earliest days of human relations, and returns as legend.
The River certainly isn’t short on lively moments, though, and Floating seems to have a lot going on with its funky wee electronic opening. There’s a nostalgic feeling to electric keyboard and flute combination that exudes sunshine and fun. And to follow, Huy Huy! is an absolute charmer of a track with its dancing flute and jangle of keyboards. You might not get the meaning of the sharp vocal intake if you didn’t grow up in Scotland. It’s a bit like ho-hum, but more affirmative. One of the happiest tunes to appear on an album this year so far.
A river’s wildlife can be a constant source of wonder. In Fate of the Kelts / Out to Sea; an opening that’s almost devotional in its approach marks the beginning of the life-cycle of the Spey’s most famous inhabitant, the salmon. There’s a beautiful, joyful burst of life heralded by rolling piano chords and curlew calls as the Salmon takes up its seaward journey.
All rivers are subject to the ravishes of human interference, though, and Iasgairean nan Neamhnaid (The Pearlfishers) is both a lament and a warning. Taking the pibroch tradition as inspiration and the endangered pearl mussels as an example; Hamish makes the most of flute, drone and a mournful Canntaireachd from Calum MacCrimmon (Braebach) to remind us of the environmental abuses the river suffers at human hands. As the lament develops, piano begins to explore the spaces between the tears, there’s a ghostly warning before Martin’s bodhran and James Lindsay’s bass lead the chase and drama ensues.
The River is a delightful and long-anticipated solo debut by Hamish Napier. It’s a collection of fascinating melodies where any piece can start on a lilting note, then before you know what’s happening it’s transformed into a multi-coloured swirling sensation. The CD is adorned by Somhairle MacDonald’s beautifully detailed line drawings, just as easy to lose yourself in as the music. Flute is the predominant voice on the album, in several varieties, along with piano. Far from restricting the album’s scope, there’s an air of authenticity and sincerity that could never have been achieved by any other method. Through his music, Hamish paints portraits of the river’s endless moods and mysteries. Not only that, he paints those portraits with such care and depth of emotion it’s impossible to avoid the irresistible pull of the current.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The River is Out Now
Order it via Bandcamp