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Private Label BRE004CD

A chunky hour-long CD with lots of information on the sleeve, Breabach's fifth release (the fourth on their own label) is more of the same high-quality stuff we've come to expect from this still-young highland band. Fiddle tunes, pipe tunes, Gaelic songs and Scots songs here range from the very new to the positively ancient. There is an important new ingredient too: since their Ùrlar album, Breabach has spent a lot of time in Australia and New Zealand as part of the Boomerang project to join European and Antipodean cultures, and much of the material on Astar is influenced by that experience or even integrated with Oceanic music and language. There are tastes of Quebec and Norway too, other stops in Breabach's busy touring schedule, with guest musicians from all four nations. Copious amounts of fish and strong drink were probably consumed in the making of this record.

Still with the same line-up - two pipers, fiddler, guitarist, bassist and a few people taking lead vocals - the Breabach sound is largely unchanged and they fit neatly into their assigned pigeonhole of contemporary tradition-based Scottish/Gaelic mainly-instrumental acoustic folk music. The low whistle opener, Midnight Sun, is surprisingly gentle for a band with such firepower, but things hot up quickly when the music moves seamlessly from Norway to New Zealand for Murawai, which incorporates a tongue-twisting Maori haka specially written by Scott Morrison. I can't wait for the video. Pipes and fiddle, whistles and flute make every instrumental track a delight - from the delicate waltz, Farsund, to the thumping Donald MacLeod reel, The Ramparts. There are fun and funky moments such as The Striking Clock and the superb Quebec-flavoured set, Les Pieds Joyeux (which I believe has also been made into a film). The fittingly named Last March ends this album on a rather sombre note, in memory of the great John Morris Rankin, but before then Breabach deliver some gorgeous melodies and foot-tapping arrangements in flawless style.

On the vocal side, I could complain about the loose lyrics of Robertson's Ribbon Of Fire and its references to atonement (yet another movie), or Gaughan's take on Waltzing’s For Dreamers (Outlaws And Dreamers) - after all, a million miles is forty times round the world. But the positives far far outweigh the negatives, even on these two songs, and the other two vocal tracks are an absolute joy. Megan Henderson's Gaelic singing was a revelation, sweet yet powerful, musically superb and packed with feeling - I had not considered her to be such a strong vocalist previously, but her performances here put her in the top rank of today's Gaelic singers. Mo Thruaighe Leir Thu 'Ille Bhuidhe is a catchy song about whisky smuggling, dear to any highlander's heart, while Coisich A' Rùin is a well known waulking song from the right end of the Hebrides, taken at a relaxed pace here but full of expression. Henderson joins the Fraser, MacInnes, MacPhee and Lamond clans on the list of Gaelic singers I'd like to hear more of. Astar is a very tasty recording, and these Gaelic songs top it off perfectly.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition magazine.