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Slainte Mhath - "Va" - CDTRAX229

This young Nova Scotian outfit has taken three years to follow their excellent debut album. Slainte Mhath have something of a reputation for perfectionism, and the production and packaging here certainly reflect that. They also have difficulty getting people to pronounce their name correctly, hence the album title.

Since 1999 there have been a few changes in the Slainte Mhath sound. Ace piper Bruce MacPhee has left them, to be replaced by John of that ilk. Bruce was a true piping prodigy: John's style is rather less flamboyant and certainly not as crisp, but he comes close at times, particularly on Garret Barry's Jig and Steve Young's evocative tune Magnus Memory. Virtuoso keyboards player Ryan MacNeil is still a major determinant of the overall style, and the percussion and twin fiddles are likewise unchanged, but the arrangements have become noticeably more contemporary and high-tech. Distorted speech is mixed into several tracks, synthesisers pop up here and there, and the general feel is of a relatively expensive modern production.

About eighty percent of the material on Va is broadly traditional. Most of that is Irish, ranging from Donal Lunny's Tolka Polka to the classic session tune The Silver Spear. The guitar solo on The Farmer Killled His Ox Today is uncannily similar to early recordings by Arty McGlynn. Scottish music is also well represented with tunes by Gordon Duncan, Ian Hardie, William Marshall and others. There's a noticeable Cape Breton flavour to the whole thing, although there are none of the big Cape Breton medleys. Many of the tunes are Cape Breton versions, often adapted for the pipes. The fiddles do their share of the driving too: the one brief medley of nine reels and strathspeys is a mini fiddle showcase, and they're also well to the fore on the more modern tracks (with the exception of Attack of the Flying Slugs).

Slainte Mhath made a big splash with their first recording. Their second could create even more waves, especially with a younger audience. There are clear differences between this album and Slainte Mhath's debut. The first one had a wee bit more fire, this one's more thoughtful. The piping was very impressive on their debut CD, but Va is in some ways more rounded. Why choose? Get them both.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 49 of The Living Tradition magazine.