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MIKE VASS - December Well

MIKE VASS - December Well
Rusty Squash Horn Records RSH003CD

It took a while for this album to grow on me. Perhaps it's the wintry theme, the lack of hotspots and flashpoints, which means the appeal of December Well is slower to develop: but develop it did, like frost traceries or icicles, and suddenly it was there, brilliant and starkly beautiful. The chill of winter runs right through this recording, obvious from the track names, but also evoked musically in myriad ways. The crystal chimes, the rhythmic drip-drip, the jagged bowstrokes and high keening tones: all these contribute to the sense of ice and snow outside, piled against the snug warmth inside, for a perfect December. Fiddles and guitars, keyboards and percussion, create a soundscape which seems both carefully crafted and totally natural, like wind-sculpted snow shapes. The stark notes of Looking Through, the almost trite playfulness of Lights, the raw elemental power of Hallan: these are all engaging pieces in their own right, cast and moulded into a conceptual whole by Mike Vass. Mike plays all the instruments here, and provides the vocals too: no words, just music.

To call this Scottish music is to diminish the scope of December Well. Yes, its roots are clearly Scottish, but it spans Scandinavian and other North European genres, as well as qualifying as experimental classical composition at times. There are traditional forms here - the jig Melter, the slow reel North - but much of this CD defies categorisation. This is pioneering music in the joyous spirit of Oliver Schroer, Martyn Bennett, Howie MacDonald and others: deep rolling percussion, natural and synthetic sound effects, complex interwoven melodies, layering many simple elements to build up a rich textured soundscape. There have been a few Scottish traditional winter theme recordings over the years, but December Well goes further and deeper, capturing all aspects of winter's cold beauty, from the alien frost patterns of Pane to the scarves and mittens of Maxwell Park. If you're looking for a seasonal Scottish CD, this one ticks all the boxes. If you just like good original music, the same applies. I think December Well has slowly drifted onto my 2012 Top Ten list, and should probably be on your wish list too.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 94 of The Living Tradition magazine.