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Private Label JMMCD002

A second solo album by the quiet man from highland supergroup Breabach, Sròmos is entirely composed by James Duncan Mackenzie and features his mastery of Scottish pipes and wooden flute in roughly equal measure. This CD is less upbeat than his previous eponymous release, focusing as it does on the 19th century clearances and subsequent emigrations from James Duncan's native Lewis: like many areas of the Scottish highlands, the island still bears the scars of large-scale deprivation and forced emigration, and while Mackenzie does not dwell on the causes, the cruelty and injustice of the time certainly come through in his music and the accompanying notes.

The title track is a mournful reel written for a village which was literally wiped off the map by the clearances to make way for sheep farming. Plough On The Cross-Beam sounds a more optimistic note, reflecting the resurgence of highland culture in recent years, an uplifting melody on flute and Border pipes. Stornoway Waltz is equally positive, a beautiful tune written for the largest town on Lewis and its namesake on Quebec which was founded by the emigrants and flourishes still. (Incidentally, Stornoway is also the name of Quebec's first diamond mine.) Land Raiders sounds a note of defiance with a medley of three tunes commemorating the rebellious slaughter of the landowner's deer by the starving people of another Lewis village: they were acquitted by an Edinburgh court when the plight of the islanders came to public attention.

The positive mood does not last, as Next Tide remembers the tragic wrecking of the troop ship Iolaire in 1918, and the 200 men returning from the war who lost their lives in the sea off Stornoway. James Duncan's first album featured a piobaireachd written for the same tragedy by Donald MacLeod: this piece is much shorter but no less poignant. There is a spark of cheer in Langavat, two pieces evoking the Lewis landscape, but the final three tracks all have darker themes, so much so that you could probably play this music in Lewis on a Sunday. As well as Mackenzie's exceptional talents, Sròmos features Alasdair White and Jack Smedley on fiddles, together with a wide range of accompaniment from John Lowrie, Allan Nairn, Innes White and James Lindsay. The sound is full and balanced, and apart from a slight ocean swell in the pipe dynamics this is a very polished recording. Even the album cover is attractive, which is a big improvement on James Duncan Mackenzie's debut CD! 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 123 of The Living Tradition magazine.