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Strathspey Records SRCD01

Multi-instrumentalist Hamish is one of the brothers who broke onto the Scottish music scene with the band, Back Of The Moon, and rapidly became movers and shakers in and around Glasgow. The innovative Nae Plans project with Adam Sutherland is just one of Napier's ground-breaking ideas, and he has recently been nominated for a unique award. The River is his first solo instrumental album, drawing its inspiration from the river Spey which flows past Hamish's childhood home in Grantown. It's a fine excuse for a tune, with its shifting moods and appearances, and Hamish wrote all the music here as part of a Celtic Connections commission.

There is a handful of guest musicians, and some natural sounds, but most of the playing is done by Hamish on flutes, keyboards and clarinet. Mostly flute - the tinkling of ivories is probably irresistible in a running water context, but it's not overdone here. Starting with The Mayfly, a birth-life-death biographical piece in under three minutes, this suite of linked pieces progresses past whirlpools, fishermen, boats, raft races, grim tragedies, pearl mussels and spawning salmon, all described in notes and cadences. The humour of Huy Huy! doesn't detract from the brilliance of the tune, or the skill of the musicians. The warnings implicit in The Pearlfishers or Drowning Of The Silver Brothers are stark and clear, whether expressed as a pipe lament or a modern folk air.

Although firmly contemporary, Hamish's music continues traditions from Scotland's highlands and lowlands as well as embracing other styles. I keep listening to The River, finding more each time, yet I am still unable to categorise or classify it. The playing is exceptional, and every piece is a moving experience, but the whole is so broad and sweeping that it's impossible to encompass in a single view. Like the Spey, it has a beginning and an end but everything in between is in constant flux. Perhaps that is deliberate - if so, it's a stroke of genius. The artwork is remarkable too, and the sleeve notes are fascinating: from the photo of the wifey saying “Don't expect me to cook that for you!” to the closely observed work of Kenneth Grahame and Somhairle MacDonald. If I ever get to the bottom of this CD, it's going on my 2016 Top Ten list. 

Alex Monaghan

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