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It's that time of year again. Winter is coming - in some places it's already here - and the latest recordings of the World Pipe Band Championships are out in time for Christmas. The last few years have seen a 2 CD release and 2014 is no different: two tracks each from the top 12 bands, just over an hour of music per CD, in no particular order as far as I can tell. Maybe it's the order they competed in. Whatever the reason, Part One holds the eventual winners (Field Marshal Montgomery, from Belfast) and the third placed band (St Laurence O'Toole, from Dublin as it happens). Part Two holds the controversial second placed Inveraray & District Pipe Band and two of the other four high-placed Scottish bands. The complete list, from fourth to twelfth in order, is Boghall & Bathgate, Shotts & Dykehead, Scottish Power, Simon Fraser University, Greater Glasgow Police, Canterbury Caledonian Society, Dowco Triumph Street, 78th Fraser Highlanders and Cullybackey from Antrim. I had to look up the Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band - they're from Vancouver and apparently have an illustrious history at least as far back as 1979. You learn something new every year. Canterbury is of course in New Zealand: the Church of England is trying its best to become modern and ecumenical, but embracing Scottish bagpipes is a bit of a stretch even for an organisation with female bishops now.

Three Canadian bands, two Ulster bands, one Irish Republic band, one New Zealand band and five Scottish bands: nothing too controversial there. But there was indeed controversy at this year's finals and not surprisingly it centred on who won. Some people felt that Scotland was robbed of victory - maybe they were just warming up for the referendum result. In any case, you can listen yourself now to the medleys and the MSR (march, strathspey and reel) performances by the 2014 World Champions and their closest rivals who, according to the judges, lost it on the medley drumming. It seems Inveraray won the MSR by a whisker, but lost the medley by a full beard. I'm not a drummer, but I find some of the pipe band drumming here quite unsympathetic to the melody: offbeats and cross-rhythms which have little to do with the tune. The Cullybackey medley drumming enhances the music - their offbeats on Dunrovin Farm are just right to my ear - and while I appreciate this band came 12th, I still prefer their percussion to the winning Field Marshal arrangements.

There's plenty to enjoy from the lower-placed bands too. After all, most of these outfits have been champions in the recent past. Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia produce a great traditional sound on the ever popular Highland Wedding of Susan MacLeod to John Morrison, and follow that with a medley featuring many new compositions by their Pipe Major Ryan Canning, a tried and tested approach as nobody else knows what these pieces should sound like. Simon Fraser University from Vancouver, another hugely successful band this century, don't have the luxury of a prolific composing P/M and are forced to fall back on such tasteful titles as Gary West's Coupit Yowe and the infamous Morag Of Glendale - so good they played it twice. There's some very innovative arranging by SFU's neighbours Dowco Triumph Street, finishing with a rake of fine reels. I notice Chris Armstrong is now leading the Scottish Power pipe band, but only using a couple of his own pioneering pieces in their medley. Inveraray chose a very traditional medley selection under the guidance of Stuart Liddell, with a long drum-free passage in the middle. Field Marshall Montgomery, still led by Richard Parkes who must surely be due some time off for good behaviour by now, went for a more adventurous repertoire, playing the Irish card and doing unspeakable things to Gordon Duncan's High Drive - and it paid off. That's the reality of top class piping competition: another day, another damp dram in some drone-filled drill hall.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 105 of The Living Tradition magazine.