CD Reviews 2012-

'Love devotion and (no) surrender to musical limits'

Jon Sanders Zoukelele;

After the peerless melodic visions of Sanders' Twigs of the Neem Tree' (2010) and its finger popping layers of intricacy, harmony and construct, any subsequent projects might appear to be understandably diminished. Not so, with 'Zoukelele' (2014), a mature exposition of what is possible with the ukulele and bouzouki – as read through as many musical ports of influence as Sanders has toured it throughout Europe and beyond. This eleven track offering to the eclectic deities lays down a range of serious, often mesmerising compositions, melodically and rhythmically complex, but with one addition from previous outings – Sufi chanting (on the anthemic 'Den Bosch'). Arguably the iconic track, but so early in the experience that it's easy to feel that he's played his best card (as if Zeppelin had opened 'Physical Graffiti' with 'Kashmir'!) but there's plenty more voyages of discovery to come, and soon we're flying over Mali and Ethiopia riding the hypnotic strains of scales unfamiliar, before circling back to catch the faint echo of folk tales from Bulgarian forests, or the friendly voices of a Breton fishing community. There's even time to tread the seashore in the company of a lover or friend and reflect on the beauty of a night time sky above them in the joyous 'Walk with me'.

Many of the tracks begin with a few bars of classic Sanders, the setting of a mood through a single scale, riff or trill which weaves and snakes its way ever intricately into something of immense latent energy and evocation, before exploding through the orchestral stratosphere like a Saturn 5 rocket going through the gears. It's a template nicely exemplified by the steady stringed lolloping of 'Stromboli Stomp', readying us for the journey, before suddenly erupting into New Orleans ragtime piano and an excited exchange of four bar chatter with the frenetic ukuleles.

There are many journeys here and Sanders has so much to say whichever instruments he is applying himself to, all seemingly striving for the possibility of human unity realised through the medium of shared musical experience. Watching him live, either with long time collaborator Dave Alley, or solo, you realise you are in the presence of an extraordinarily gifted communicator – who has taken his own Western rooted skills and gone out to explore and converse with other cultural traditions and re-articulate common visions. We end 'Zoukelele' with the steady gentle humility and breathy optimism of 'Ascension', settling us into reflective mode as to what is possible, and how much there is still to be explored.

'From gas lights to space flight' – a remarkable story

 

Runrig The Story (2017)

This, Runrig’s last studio album, is a really deep piece of work. It is not their best, or worst, or even a mid-period/band members changing ‘uneven’ kind of collection. If this is your first experience of the band and you are not sure after a few listens go back and listen to 'The Cutter and the Clan' (the best of the Donnie Munro period) or 'The Stamping Ground' (Bruce Guthro), for the more comprehensive collections of really top songs. 'The Story' is something very different, profounder maybe than those great albums in its concept and sweep, but not without stand alone songs that would look out of place on them. It may not win new fans – and the sum of the parts are more complete than its individual components - but Runrig have always been true to what they are, and this is as much of a statement of that ethic as their first album 'Play Gaelic'.

On one level it is the story of the last hundred years of Gaelic culture as it has been shaped by and in turn shaped world events, seen through the eyes of a group of musical ambassadors - ‘the history within’ (from the 'Proterra' album). At the same time, the songs are snapshots of anyone’s experience of place, love, war, music and the globalization of all of these things, and how we respond to them. There are moments of lyricism as good as anything they have written, such as the evocation of the Normandy landings on the best song, 'Rise and Fall' and the understated poignancy of “the breaking out for Caen/dealing fear and all our dices loaded/in the courage of the dawn”. The compassion and humanity of the whole project is beautifully conveyed in the accompanying booklet with the album, complete with its anthropological feel, black and white photography, excerpts of poetry and diary entries. Just reading that on its own is moving enough.

Perhaps inevitably then, the production and arrangements aimed at conveying the emotion of that journey is an impossible task, and some reviewers have found fault in the mixing and balance of instruments and voices. It is a ‘big sound’, and more daringly mixed than one is used to, as is the arrangement of voices. Rory does get more lines than usual, but Brian has it absolutely right as producer. Bruce is an international standard vocalist, but Rory’s voice is the soul of the band, whose authenticity cuts at a really deep level. Their ‘dialogue’, if you like, within the songs, exchanging couplets or verses resonates nicely in terms of what Runrig has become – a conversation with the world.

There are faults, even on the stronger numbers – 'The Years We Shared' is far too good a song to be this short: it needs a couple more minutes, and the two line middle eight creates a mood without embellishing upon it. 'The Place Where The Rivers Run' needs Bruce in the first couple of choruses, for a bit of power, thereby adding to the emotion of the more acoustic final one, with Rory seeing us home. But let’s be realistic, few artists who have been going as long as Runrig would be able to bow out with anything, let alone an ethno-musicological summary of what they have observed in their four to five decades of performing. Many musicians represent a time (the Stones), a sensibility (Dylan, Mitchell) can ride and even alter fashions (Madonna, Bowie), and are able to keep writing good material (Springsteen, Young); rarely do they exude such an elemental force in the way that Runrig have managed to do; rarely are they actually part of something.

The last song 'Somewhere' is very hard to judge. Although spiritual, it is also a eulogy for people loved, experiences shared and culture expressed – an existential plea for those life forces to continue somehow. Since the highest compliment that any artist can receive is that strangers may be moved by their work and use it in their lives, it is a powerful thought that one of their most universal of songs – 'Running to the Light' (from 'The Stamping Ground') – be chosen by an astronaut to play on board a Space Shuttle. So, hearing Commander Laurel Clark’s words from the ether, before ‘Columbia’ was lost with all hands on February 1st 2003, as the music fades out at the end of 'Somewhere' is very poignant, but also indicative of the band’s legacy and the humility and grace with which they have approached and carried their art.

Rhombus Here be dragons (2013)

This is the first album I have actually sat down and listened to by West Yorkshire Goth band Rhombus and it is a wonderful introduction to their moody dramatic style. It's got plenty of atmosphere, and a worthy indicator of the power of their live performances: thunderous production, but comprising of real subtle guitar and keyboard textures and soaring ethereal vocals cutting through it all (as you'd expect from a goth-type band). The running order of tracks is very pleasing on the ear and some of these stay with you for days ('Fallout' is the pick for me, but the title track and 'What you wanted' are also indicative of the band's real knack of making minimalist lyrics drip with menace, passion or even humor). There's even a ballad thrown in there for contrast. The (fold out) cover art is incredibly inventive and tongue in cheek. One to put on whilst cooking a big stew, along with a glass or two of (blood) red wine!!

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