Stuart Milne reviews ‘From The Ground’ by Laura-Beth Salter and Ali Hutton


From The Ground
CD Review by Stuart Milne. May 2024.

Long has nature served as one of mankind’s greatest muses in all art forms, not least the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Just think how many classic tunes are named after bens, glens, paps, and the various animals that roam them (the unfortunate womenfolk of the composers are sometimes given short shrift by comparison). More recently, entire projects have emerged from the traditional music scene paying homage to and calling for the rescue of our shrinking natural world, not least the magisterial Spell Songs ensemble.

A new and worthy addition to this emerging canon is From the Ground, with Ali Hutton and Laura-Beth Salter at the heart of an impressive cast of collaborating musicians, including Kim Carnie, Duncan Lyall and Patsy Reid.  The breakdown of who plays what lists no fewer than seven instrumental contributions from Hutton, with various types of guitars, keys and programming appearing alongside the expected pipes and whistle. The Highland pipes are heard infrequently on this album, with Hutton’s whistle most often accompanying Salter’s mandolin, tenor guitar and vocals.

The notes describe From the Ground as “an ode to nature and its infinite power to heal”, with an added warning about the need for action to protect it. This urgency is most noticeable in the fittingly titled opening track, The 11th Hour, which begins with a foreboding programming-heavy prelude eerily similar to The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, complete with the heavy chords of doom you would expect from a horror film soundtrack. The melody of this slow piece is introduced on whistle, giving way to Highland pipes. The introduction of the latter suggests the ground of a piobaireachd (in what must surely be a deliberate nod to title of the album), although Seamus MacNeill would have had strong words to say about the backing arrangement. Traditionalists who disapprove of this vibe making its way into folk music are encouraged to keep listening. While the opening two tracks contain shades of the darker works of Chvrches, Niteworks and Hutton’s former band Treacherous Orchestra, there is none of the off-the-wall craziness that could overwhelm some of the latter’s music, and much of the rest of the album is far more acoustic in its approach.

While there is a mixture of time signatures in the tunes, they are generally played at relaxed tempos. The overall mood of the album is gentle and contemplative, with sound samples of whistling wind, rolling waves and other familiar motifs developing a sense of place similar to the works of John Mulhearn. The Beautiful Cold, the sole carryover from the previous From the Ground EP, is a great example of this.

Several tracks feature singing and spoken word from a range of vocalists, and these are naturally the most obvious ways to convey the musicians’ messages. Toxic masculinity, not exactly conducive to harmony with nature, is dismantled in Braver One, which outlines the qualities all men should strive to embody: “He’s listening to everything without the urge to fight” being an especially memorable mockery of the capacity of human males to come to blows within moments of laying eyes on each other.

Several different voices come together to extol the virtues of connecting to nature in the final track, Breathe, subtly highlighting an additional message of collaboration to care for the planet so we can continue to enjoy these precious moments. The uplifting combination of pipes, strings and percussion underneath the narration makes for a suitably motivating climax. The most affecting song, however, might just be the ethereal and calming Wake Lines, with its message of interconnectedness, and gentle, soothing strings in the final third of the song.

It is nearly 250 years since Robert Burns apologised to the unfortunate mouse with the words: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion / Has broken nature’s social union”. Everything man has done to Planet Earth in that time is evoked in the title track of From the Ground, with sound effects evoking the beating machinery of industry. A further apology is long overdue, as the album continually reminds us, with the addition of an optimistic but pressing call to action in the chorus: “There’s still time to turn this around / We can keep growing from the ground.” It is a message conveyed with stunning effect by a black-and-white album cover that deserves to be hung on many a bedroom wall.

There is relatively little piping to be heard on From the Ground, but that is not the point of this project. Find a quiet corner to listen to the message and the memorable music of this important album, then head out to your favourite local green space, follow the advice of From the Ground’s closing words and “just be”.