Scottish fiddle quartet Rant released their début album in 2013, and the band’s talent for developing and delivering beautiful, complex arrangements of traditional music soon earned them glowing tributes in the music press and a nomination in the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Rant are about to build on that success with their second album, Reverie.
Rant first came together at a festival celebrating the work of 18th Century fiddler and composer Neil Gow, probably the most important figure in Scottish fiddle music. In 2012 Bethany Reid and Jenna Reid from Shetland joined highland fiddlers Sarah-Jane Summers and Lauren MacColl for a tune session. They soon realised that with the merging of their regional styles, just four fiddles together with no other accompaniment produced an original sound that could re-interpret the airs, jigs, Strathspeys and reels of the Scottish repertoire with a combination of skill and elegance that had never been fully explored.
Since that initial meeting their music has most often been described as ‘chamber-folk quartet’, and it’s a description that fits from the album’s opening – JT’s. A richly harmonic introduction gives way to a cantering rhythm as the intensity of the sparse melody ebbs and flows, moving to and fro between an abundance of harmonies, to a complex and uplifting arrangement with distinctive voices for all four fiddles. It’s these intricate interpretations of the music, far more than simply four fiddles sharing a melody, that make the band’s sound so distinctive, and enjoyable. JT’s was composed by Bethany Reid for her husband, flautist/piper James Thomson, and she retains the family connection in Dad’s 60th; a joyful, cascading, celebratory march with a fresh, contemporary spirit. This is immediately followed by the short, and beautifully soothing Rehoboth.
Strathbogie Toast opens with a similarly gentle pace in a pair of tunes from Highland Perthshire, with a Neil Gow classic given the full Rant treatment amid a rousing chorus of strings that sweep the listener, irresistibly toward the dance floor.
And there’s plenty life in those singing strings when it comes to the expert pairing of Highland and Shetland melodies. Wha’ll Dance Wi Wattie opens with Lauren’s 5 Months, where strong bass notes back a melody explored on a pair of fiddles before a reel with an invigorating Shetland breeze to blow the clouds away and bring out the sunshine. Happy Day opens with Nordic flavours from the Shetland Island of Fetlar, Hyltadance. The Scandinavian nuances that pepper the album must surely come from the influence of Sarah-Jane, and her fondness for the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. An ancient tradition of melodies learned from the fairy folk (Trows) is the source for this hypnotic, gently swaying dance as it gives way to the grace of a beautiful slow jig from Lauren; a tune as soft and sweet as a lover’s breath, that closes on a gentle sigh.
The Highland traditions represented on the album also pay homage to some of the region’s best known composers. James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) published hundreds of fiddle tunes in his lifetime and was famous for his Strathspeys, but it’s his achingly beautiful Geanie’s Lament that proves the effectiveness of the fiddle as an expressive voice, in a tearful tragedy from which a Highland melody slowly emerges. Fire Away presents a jubilant pair of hornpipes from the same source. Opening in a perfect chorus of four fiddles, the arrangement expands with rhythm, melody and harmonies in a soaring delight. David Charles Mather emigrated from the Highlands to Canada in 1903 and his pipe reel, Willie Cumming’s Rant, illustrates perfectly the scope and precision of Rant’s arrangements. Ewan MacPherson joined Lauren during her recent Celtic Connections set, and in his lively composition, The Orca, rhythm holds sway over melody in an exciting ebb and flow.
Recent collaborations have provided Rant with the opportunity to include two songs on Reverie. Lauren is a regular member of Ewan McLennan’s live trio, and the first features Ewan’s rich, expressive voice in Mary’s Dream. It’s a perfect fit for the depth of those strings, and as the tragedy of a lover lost at sea unfolds, both of these finely matched voices take on more haunting and dramatic tones. The song is from southern Scotland (John Lowe) but the melody is a Shetland air, and the instrumental bridge provides a rich, rewarding exploration of the theme.
Rant joined Julie Fowlis on her last album, Gach Sgeul – Every Story; and Julie’s returned the compliment to provide her crisp, precise and eternally wonderful Gaelic vocal for Thug thu chonnlach as an t-sabhal (you took the straw from the barn).
With virtually every corner of Scotland explored it was perhaps inevitable that there’d be nowhere else to go but North. From Iceland comes a piece evocative of deep, cool sea mists and rugged shore lines with such a profound sense of reverence I wasn’t surprised to read in the sleeve notes that it’s a hymn – Fyrir mig, Jesú, þoldir þú ( It Was For Me, Jesus, That You Endured). Learned from Schola Cantorum, the chamber choir of Hallgrímskirkja, the utterly enthralling arrangement reminds us that slow and gentle needn’t mean mournful; and exudes a calm, spiritual atmosphere with which to close the album.
The fiddle plays an essential role in Scottish traditional music. Whether as a tool for composing, a highly expressive and adaptable instrument, or the delivery method for centuries of social dance; without the fiddle Scottish trad music wouldn’t be the world-wide phenomenon it is today.
Since their earliest live appearances, Rant have produced traditional music in a way that is as original and rewarding as, for instance, cellist Yo Yo Ma’s projects with American roots music. Their début album introduced a band that could shed new light on the Scottish fiddle tradition. Reverie sees them expand on those initial discoveries and take the music to new horizons with peerless elegance.
Having conquered, again, the hearts of their Scottish fans over the past month and just completed a couple of dates in Norway they are now making their way south of the Tweed, to favour English audiences with their individual and distinctive music. See them play, buy the album, and experience a unique and wonderfully satisfying view of Scottish traditional music.
12th May – Kings Place, London
13th May – Ruskin Mill, Stroud
14th May – Helmsley Arts Centre, Helmsley, Yorkshire
19th May – Norden Farm, Maidenhead
20th May – Junction, Goole
21st May – The Hexham Gathering, Hexham, Northumberland
22nd May – Shepley Folk Festival
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