The limitations of the great highland bagpipe are:
- A fixed range of melody notes/fixed octave drone;
- No dynamic ability;
- No rests (traditionally).
Nevertheless, considering our instrument cannot become louder or quieter, we don’t start and stop, and we are restricted with what keys we can play in, it’s amazing the variety of music that can be produced from this instrument. On this new release from trio Xavier Boderiou (Highland Pipes), Sylvain Barou (Whistles/ Flutes), and Antoine Lahay (Guitar), melodies old and new from the Scots/Irish tradition and from the Breton culture are explored.
I dug this record in a big way.
One of my pet peeves with “Trad” music is that it is all so bloody nice! A jingle jangle here, a rootley toot there and bingo bango! You are a trad musician now. Here is your tweed hat, angora sweater and mandatory pint of room temperature Guinness. You can slap each other heartily on the back as the same musical ideas are regurgitated over and over as we all compete in the great race to produce the least threatening, most banal dinner party background music possible.
When a performer or album comes along that approaches the artform with fresh voice suddenly the air smells sweeter, the autumn leaves are glowing gold, and the sky has never been a more crisp, hazy blue. The Liamm trio are no newcomers to the art as individuals but as a project have produced something special, something bold but importantly they’ve done it with the same tools everyone else has.
The music presented on Liamm stands on its own, track by track. This is key strength of the record: All Killer. No Filler.
Taking into account that we have three tenor voiced instruments on this album there is no sense of wasted space or dullness on any track. Antoine Lahay provides a tasteful accompaniment to the melody instruments and at appropriate moments makes his own voice feel heard, such a departure from the pseudo percussive “Trad” guitar style so prevalent in the artform. The unison passage between Boderiou and Lahey in track two, ‘Herri Leon’ is as captivating a section as you’ll hear on any trad. record.
The coupling of whistle/ flutes and pipes is almost supernatural on this record. The subtleties of the pipe seem elevated by Sylvain Barou. I am sure whistling purists will shriek, “Mother! Mother! That man is playing the whistle too much like a piper! Oh Mother! What. Will. We. Do!?!?!?”, in between wiping the spaghetti hoops off their faces and toast crumbs from their perfectly preened beards.
I can see the point that’s there to be made, but really what Barou does throughout is support the pipe melody and make tasteful choices that blend well around the bagpipe’s limitations. There would be little merit to hearing two similarly voiced instruments grind against each other for 56 minutes. The playing of the whistle/ flute is breathy yet powerful and provides a yin to the bagpipe’s yang. ‘Café Filtre’ is where Barou gets to shine out on this album: Lahey provides a shifting sand of accompaniment that Barou floats over like a sea bird watching a shoal of fish approach the surface.
Last, but by no means least, Xavier Boderiou on The Great Highland Bagpipe. Pipers have the tendency to turn every conversation about a performance into a critique or a lesson. Very few people will have anything critical to say of Boderiou’s playing. Least of all me, I loved it. The depth of technical work and delivery of the music, to me, was first class and I enjoyed the hell out of every tune. The sound of the pipes was stable and consistent throughout (OK, there’s the odd crackle to the high A here and there) and to me, provided a silver/ grey spine for the meat of the other instruments to cling to in every track.
The unsung hero on this album is the engineer/producer. Boderiou himself was the engineer and recording took place in the workshop at Boderiou Bagpipes (in Landrevarzeg in the Finistère district of Brittany). Sylvain Barou recorded some pieces and leads the mastering of the album. The recording is clean and full-bodied. There is a sense of the room in the recordings but not enough to make the instruments in any way muddy. The mixing centres around the bagpipe but the bagpipe leaves you little choice but to do that, multitracking is seamless and subtle especially on ‘Prizon Pontaniou’ (track six) where the trio is joined by Paul Salaun singing the tale of a Second World War Swiss spy imprisoned in Brest (northwestern Brittany). Regardless of a shared language Salaun’s powerful tones send the listener on a journey of high emotion and drama.
I’m finding it tough to think of anything here I would like to hear done differently. If I was super nit picking I would maybe like to hear more of the whole pipe in sections where the bagpipe is on its own and the higher register of the more ornate guitar parts could cut through the sound a little more but I don’t feel the album loses anything and those thoughts are just down to my own personal preference. Again, if I had to pick out anything, these are what I would pick out but, honestly, I was too busy enjoying the music to notice anything on the first couple of play throughs.
I feel like the length of this review does not do justice to this excellent record. The Liamm trio have made a great job of representing their home culture as well as portraying Scots/Irish traditional music with care, respect, and imagination. Stand out tracks for me are ‘Prizon Pontaniou’, ‘Gavotte Pourlet’ and ‘Lexy McAskill’.
On my scale of 1 (The Doors’ Soft Parade, unlistenable garbage) to 5 (Hot Chocolate’s Everyone’s a Winner, unattainably phenomenal) I am pleased to give Liamm a 43/4.