ROAD TO THE NORTH
CD Review by Stuart Milne.
Piping Today #93, 2018.
Assynt were a lovely surprise when they shared the stage of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s New Auditorium with Iranian piper Mohsen Sharifian and his band Lian at Celtic Connections in 2018, and the Piping Live! launch of their debut album Road to the North is a most welcome development.
The young trio consist of David Shedden (who comes from a fine piping family and has bags of experience on the solo and pipe band scenes) on pipes and whistle, Graham Mackenzie on fiddle and the in-demand Innes White on guitar and mandolin. You know you’re listening to a well-connected band when the 2017 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year (Charlie Stewart) makes a guest appearance on double bass, while Scott Mackay also joins in on drums and percussion.
Almost all the music on the album is penned by the band members themselves, with David providing the bulk of the material. The album begins with three of his tunes – a march, The Fiend and the Hound, and two jigs, A Race to the Top and Deadlines. The last jig has an appropriately anxious edge to it that will be familiar to all students (and their long-suffering lecturers, for that matter). The tunes are played at relaxed tempos that are very easy to listen to.
Regarding to the second set, it sounds as if this same theme of university life was the inspiration for the last two reels – the pent-up tension of Nearly There by David and the blissful release of And That’s That by Graham. Throughout the album the pipes/whistle, fiddle and guitar blend wonderfully with each other in a manner reminiscent of early Breabach.
Some younger composers are criticised for writing tunes that are too technical and flashy, but many of David and Graham’s tunes have a much older feel to them, reminiscent of the respect for tradition so evident in David’s set from the final of the Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition in January 2018.
The standout track is a beautiful and gentle slow air, Ava May, written by David but carried in the recording by Graham’s sublime fiddle playing in the early going. While the bulk of the tunes on the album have good music about them, there are few genuine earworms with a melodic line as instantly memorable as this air.
The comparison is exacerbated by the final set, the only one comprising well-known traditional tunes rather than original compositions – Ruidhleadh Mo Nighean Donn, The Harris Dance and Jenny Dang the Weaver. The latter makes for a suitably upbeat climax to the album, although the track unfortunately ends on a downer of a low “G” referring back to the first tune that, while clearly well-intentioned, spoils the overall effect.
It is a pity, because the great strength of this recording is Assynt’s minor/major key progression in their set construction, epitomised by the lovely reel No Way Out (Innes’s only composition on the album) that closes out the penultimate track.
This is a young band with an old soul, and it will be exciting to see what they do with their next recording. They’ve already mastered the merger of Scottish and Iranian music live on stage – now there’s an idea…•
•The Road To The North is available from www.thebagpipeshop.co.uk