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MIKE VASS - In The Wake Of Neil Gunn 

MIKE VASS - In The Wake Of Neil Gunn 
Unroofed Records UR001CD

This recording is the culmination of a fascinating project. In spring 2014, composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass followed the 1937 journey of Scottish writer Neil Gunn in a small boat around the Inner Hebrides. Along the way he played a series of concerts and recorded sounds during his time on a sailing ship which have been incorporated into this collection of new compositions. A short pre-release tour of the East and West coasts reunited the many musicians who joined Mike at different points in his journey: oboist and clarsach player Jennifer Port, Hamish Napier on flutes, pianist Iain Hutchison, Euan Burton on bass and the Cairn String Quartet among others. I hope there will be more opportunities to hear this music live - at Celtic Connections perhaps? Keep your eyes peeled.

In The Wake Of Neil Gunn doesn't fit any neat musical categories. There are some beautiful melodies - the opening oddly-titled Settled In Clay, the ominous Fused Dark and a more cheerful note struck by The Very Thing. Other tracks are largely devoid of melody: soundscapes rather than tunes, evocative pieces such as Quiet Voices or Heave And Roll - a reference to the movement of the boat, I trust, rather than the effects of too much Hebridean hospitality. Cold Iron reminds me strongly of Slainte Mhaith and their progressive folk track Annie, while some of the oboe pieces recall Jeremy Irons in The Mission more than Neil Gunn in the Minch. There is quite a lot of oboe - probably an “all you can squeak” deal - and along with the more sparingly used string quartet, it stamps a classical or at least cinematic character on this album. Vass has thrown in several other ingredients - rock percussion, electric bass, his own fiddle and piano and guitar, as well as recorded snippets of the boat, the radio, the sea - to create an ever-changing mix. It is consequently difficult to pick out particular moments, themes or effects: this is very much a holistic CD, one to be played repeatedly during a long journey, which seems appropriate enough. If you want to dip in, the final track One Common Bond is as good a place to start as any: big, complex, with a bit of everything. The website provides a taster of the opening track and I'm sure other samples are available online.

Alex Monaghan

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