Hamish Napier is an in-demand folk musician who has collaborated with a number of key acts on the Scottish folk scene. The River, however, is the debut solo album from this Strathspey-born composer and multi-instrumentalist, and is very much inspired by a childhood spent growing up on the banks of the Spey. “The River brings to the surface vivid sonic images of occurrences, past and present, along the mile-long stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home,” Napier tells us in the extensive sleeve notes.
The album includes a stellar cast of renowned Scottish folk musicians, including Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) on flute, James Lindsay (Breabach) on double bass, Martin O’Neil (Duncan Chisholm) on bodhran, as well as Callum MacCrimmon singing Canntaireach, the ancient chanting language of the bagpipes.
Perhaps symbolic of the constantly changing flow of any river, there is a breadth of sounds and moods explored on this album. Opening track Mayfly puts one in mind of some early 70s prog rock passages, a folky Tubular Bells if you will. It’s perhaps an unusual start but provides a captivating experimental feel which immediately encourages the listener to want to explore further.
The Whirlpool meanwhile is a lovely tune with flute and whistle. It has been written as a round - in celebration of the whirlpool that constantly spins and spins just a few hundred yards from the Old Spey Bridge.which captures the frenetic natural cycle of the river as an ever-changing dance. The mood changes considerably with The Dance, beginning with gentle, sombre piano.
Of course, no aquatic-inspired folk, be it river or sea, is complete without harrowing tales of tragedy and death, and the beautiful but mournful Drowning of the Silver Brothers is inspired by the fate of two local boys who mysteriously drowned in the 1930s. Clearly not forgotten locally, this piece serves as a haunting but fitting tribute to the boys and the mystery that surrounds them.
Another memorable track is Floating, which has a funky electronic feel to it demonstrating just how far Napier is prepared to cast his musical net in order to capture the range of moods and emotions he feels moved to express in this album. The two-part The Spey Cast closes the album. The first part is a thought-provoking gentle piece inspired by the death of an old fly fisherman while the second part is a fast and furious musical romp which reflects the mixture of chaos and hilarity that is the town’s annual raft race.
For those with a love of Scottish folk, particularly those with a keen interest in experimentation and innovation within the Celtic world and who love to hear the sound of boundaries being pushed, this is an album well worth exploring.Darren Johnson
Released on Strathspey Records on 17th January 2016
2. The River
3. The Whirlpool
4. The Dance
5. The Drowning of the Silver Brothers
6. Fate of the Kelts / Out to Sea
8. Huy Huy!
9. The Pearlfishers (lasgairean Nan Neamhnaid)
10. The Spey Cast (Part A)
11. The Spey Cast (Part B)