Four whole years on from their debut album, and [several] wowed festival audiences in Scotland and further afield later, Project Smok are back with The Outset. Featuring ten all-original, all-instrumental tunes, the self-described “neo-trad” trio have produced an album that expertly blends traditional and modern elements.
Duncan Lyall lends his highly in-demand programming and production skills to give the arrangements a right up to date sound. With a sleek drum machine and synth bass backing, 1984 could quite easily be plucked out of this week’s top ten if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s Ali Levack’s whistle carrying the track’s insanely catchy hooks.
Each track on the album genuinely evolves over its runtime, with the lighter passages of entirely acoustic music such as the first 90 seconds of the record opener Cathcart balancing out the more immersive synth and drum machine backed flurries. Baltimore is a relatively straightahead jig until the final minute when the bass erupts from beneath and it launches into a dazzling sequence of semiquavers.
What makes these arrangements and studio enhancements work is the instrumental expertise of the core trio. Pablo Lafuente acts as the engine room with tight strumming on tracks such as Ruster and also puts his fingerpicking skills to use bridging melody and rhythm on Smile or chips in with funky picked riff on Airborne.
Smilarly Ewan Baird’s bodhran is tight rather than booming, giving plenty of snap on reels such as Folex, while also managing to be sparing when needed, such as on the delicate beginning to the title track.
There’s a great tonal variety to Levack’s whistling. His multitracked whistles on Airborne allows the finale of the album to take flight while he incisive hitting of high notes allows the melody to cut through clearly in the livelier segments of the album, maintaining a softness and shape on the slower passages.
To the uninitiated, the open and contemporary feel of The Outset might confound their expectations of what traditional Scottish music sounds like today. But not for young people growing up surrounded by a wealth of musical influences which have been expertly distilled into one of the freshest sounding albums in any genre likely to be released this year.Nick Brook
Released on CD and digitally January 19 2024. Produced by Duncan Lyall.
5. The Outset
8. The Ruster