To say the new project from Paul McGeechan is ambitious would be an understatement. This month Paul, former Love And Money keyboard player, releases his fascinating studio project, Starless. The album features no less than five of the country’s most talented Gaelic singers, former Blue Nile front man Paul Buchannan and the full musical might of The Prague Symphony Orchestra. Paul has amassed a huge array of technical credits over the last three decades that includes Capercaillie, Emily Smith, Bella Hardy and Aidan O’Rourke; but it was after a successful reunion album with Love And Money that Paul returned to song-writing, and the concept for Starless began to take form.
The opening overture, Fuadach, couldn’t present a stronger flavour of Scotland’s Atlantic coast, with the haunting sound of Gaelic psalms over a tolling bell. Just as the melodic thread is explored by the congregation in the sample, the orchestra also takes up a thread for the performers that follow, to weave a fascinating, complex and expansive soundscape. There’s an immediate contrast, though; with Paul Buchannan‘s unique, trembling, vocal over synths and strings in McGeechan’s own composition, Starless. The melancholy vocal and soporific atmosphere draw the listener irresistibly… In a starless sky, one shutdown moon,/ here in this city we fall in love too soon. Andrew White‘s Within These Walls takes a leaf from the same book, his poetic lyrics and quietly husky vocal a perfect match for the lush orchestration.
The addition of Karen Matheson‘s backing vocals on both tracks neatly underlines the bridge the album builds between the traditional and contemporary music scenes in Scotland, as well as among established and new talent. One of those new talents is Marie Claire Lee (The Lotus Project) whose own song, Whispered Reason No.2, takes on industrial tones along with her elegant vocal, referencing the aural delights of The Cocteau Twins. Marie Claire provides a more emphatic, soulful voice for a song from the late Bobby Henry, Solitude. In McGeechan’s superb arrangement the pensive atmosphere of the song relies as much on the complex layers of percussion as it does on the symphony orchestra. A fitting tribute.
It’s a familiar, yet still experimental sound, and the spirit of adventure is enhanced by Apocalypse. Kaela Rowan, who joined Shooglenifty on their last album (The Untied Knot) and will soon be making waves with her own solo album, sings the opening verse unaccompanied. Then the orchestra sweeps in, along with Kris Drever‘s backing vocal, Joshua McGeechan’s guitar and Ewan Vernal‘s impeccable bass in a wide expanse of song.
I’ll tell you stories of many shades,
I’ve danced in heaven and drowned in Hades
Gaelic song is also well represented on the album. The unmistakeable voice of Julie Fowlis sings Dùthaich MhicAoidh amid summer storms, and Kaela Rowan‘s voice skips through the closing track, Jura, like a breeze on Ardlussa. It also wails like an Atlantic storm among the orchestra, before a change of pace brings the album to a contemplative close amid atmospheric guitars and radio signals.
However, from its soft vocal opening, to the resplendent strings and Colin Train‘s accordion in the quiet conclusion, Surge of the Sea is one of the album’s most memorable tracks. In the late 1990’s McGeechan developed a keyboard/vocal arrangement of An Ataireachd Ard (Surge of the Sea) with Karen Matheson, taking a traditional approach to Daniel MacVicar‘s hauntingly beautiful song of exile. An Ataireachd Ard is a favourite with lovers of Gaelic song, so what could be more fitting than to take four of our finest Gaelic singers in an arrangement whose scope exemplifies the wide range of Starless?
Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes & Karen Matheson lend, in turn, their exceptional and contrasting vocals to the melody. Mary Ann Kennedy provides additional vocal backing and her harp provides a link from the sweeping strings to contemporary bass and drums that place the song perfectly within the context of the album.
Starless, rather than being a solo album, is a work of curation. In sourcing participants and material for the project, Paul McGeechan has enlisted some exceptional song and music writing skill, he has also mastered a range of influences that range from traditional Gaelic song to orchestration that harnesses the romanticism of Sibelius, and contemporary song that draws on the best of Scotland’s talent. It’s a remarkable album that provides instant appeal with its lavish arrangements and compelling vocal performances, then reveals hidden, captivating detail.
Starless is Out Now via Marina Records