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(Compass Records 4303 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/7/2001)
The revival of traditional music over the last couple of decades was in some ways a reaction against rock & roll, with artists and fans trying to bring back the musical sounds that long preceded rock. So those dedicated to reviving traditional folk from both sides of the Atlantic, from Celtic to bluegrass, tended to be purists who took a dim view of attempts to mix their traditional music with contemporary influences. But the fusion of the new and old has been gradually taking hold from the jazzy bluegrass sounds of the New Acoustic music scene in the US to mixtures of New Age and Celtic sounds from artists like Enya from Ireland.
This week we have another band that creates a boisterous blend of traditional Celtic, in this case, Scottish music, with very contemporary sounds. It's by an Edinburgh sextet with the unlikely name of Shooglenifty, and their US debut is called Solar Shears.
Shooglenifty's particular brand of musical amalgamation involves taking traditional Scottish elements, minus the bagpipes, and mixing them with techno-dance-ambient-rave rhythms, synthesizers, samples and general sonic mutations. The result is a curious but very danceable blend they have taken to calling "acid-croft."
Though this is the band's first official US release, it's actually their fourth album. They released their debut CD Venus in Tweeds in the UK in 1994. Since then they have been gaining in popularity, recorded a live album for Peter Gabriel's Realworld label and attracted British Prime Minister Tony Blair as one of their most prominent fans.
The group's name, by the way, comes from the Scottish word "shoogle" which means to shake or move about, and "nifty" in the Scottish sense, means dextrous.
Despite Shooglenifty's seemingly novel sonic culture collision and musical premise, this is not the first group to create very eclectic Scottish techno-Celt music. In the early 1990s, Mouth Music combined traditional Scottish acapella singing style with funky grooves, a generous helping of synthesizers and also some African influence. A couple of years ago, there was the creative and entertaining music of Scots-Canadian Martyn Bennett, and his album Bothy Culture which brought more contemporary sounds from the rave dance floor to his rather traditional underlying music.
Shooglenifty is a mostly instrumental group whose members are adept as traditional musicians on fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and even banjo. But they deliver their music through a battery of electronic devices from distortion boxes to synthesizers to sampling machines that create grooves that would fit in on the dance floor of a rave. Some of it is more successful than other parts, but in general, it's the kind of album that you can't help but being drawn into, with its irresistibly danceable grooves and sometimes downright wacky combinations of sounds and influences, including some hints of Middle Eastern sensibility.
The members of Shooglenifty are Malcolm Crosby on guitar, Angus Grant on fiddle, Garry Findlayson on banjo and an electrified instrument he calls a "banjax," plus bassist Conrad Ivitsky and the all-important drummer in a style that generally is done without drums, James MacKintosh. Also playing a prominent part in this recording is producer-engineer Jim Sutherland, who handled similar duties on their previous albums. He is an avid sonic experimenter, trying all manner of effects devices and unconventional recording techniques. He helps to transform this relatively conventionally instrumented band into a wild sonic ride on the album.
Solar Shears begins with a piece called The Hijab, which epitomizes Shooglenifty's psychedelic techno-Celt sounds. While the music clearly hints at Celtic, the swirl of sounds from the distorted mandolin to the drum loops makes for kind of other-worldly dance groove. <<>>
A bit more Scottish sounding is Schuman's Leap which is dominated by Grant's fiddle, though it is bathed in a sea of electronic cacophony. While the piece is rather interesting for its eclectism, it's not one of the more satisfying on the album. <<>>
Rather more laid-back and musically successful is the track called August, again featuring the fiddle prominently. <<>>
One of the most downright danceable pieces on this generally danceable album is called Delighted, which nicely combines the traditional influences with a great funky rhythm. <<>>
About the only vocal track, if you could call it that, is Maggie Ann of Clachnabrochen, with the telephone-like vocals placed in a somewhat plodding beat. <<>>
Some of the Eastern influence appears on the piece called Igor's, which comes off as a kind of Hungarian techno Celt dervish. <<>>
Also with an ominous, Eastern sound is Kinky Haroosh, with an almost dirge-like tempo and a collection of vaguely unsettling sounds. The Celtic influence becomes hard to find. <<>>
The album ends with perhaps its most Celtic-sounding track, Bjork's Chauffer, a two-part medley of reels whose instrumentation starts out mostly acoustically... <<>> before the Techno-Celt fusion returns at its best for a one of the most infectious tracks on this rhythmically enticing album. <<>>
Shooglenifty is not the first group to combine Celtic influences with a Techno groove, but they are one of the most engaging. Their dance rhythms are hard to resist, and their motley collection of sounds from traditional acoustic instruments to highly distorted samples, makes for absorbing and downright fun listening, hearing how very disparate sounds are combined in very unlikely ways. It's little wonder they have been attracting the attention they have in the UK over their three previous albums in the last six years.
Giving this album a grade for sonic quality is difficult. Although there was a lot of creativity shown by engineer/producer Jim Sutherland, sometimes the heavy distortion used on the instruments can reach the point of being a bit irritating, while at other times, the sonic juxtapositions are downright brilliant. Obviously this is an album in which the manipulation of sound is more important than its fidelity. But where undistorted acoustic instruments are heard, they are generally rather clean, and the overall dynamic range of this album is considerably better than one might expect for as concocted a recording a this one.
Shooglenifty's US debut release, Solar Shears, is an album that can be enjoyed on a number of levels -- the way the disparate styles are juxtaposed, the clever arrangements, the first-rate instrumental work -- when the instruments are not being sonically morphed into something else -- and the great dance groove. Techno-Celt or what they call "acid croft" may be something of a novelty, but this is an album that has enough ideas on it that it will stand up well to many a listening.
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