First, some ornothology. The Capercaillie is a type of large wild grouse with a name derived from the Scottish Gaelic capull coille, meaning “horse of the woods”. Like peacocks, though rather smaller, the male birds sport a flourish of courtship-assisting tail feathers. They reside in coniferous forests and are at their happiest when foraging about in such habitats, leisurely nibbling on blueberries.
It was after this age-old species that a Celtic musicians’ collective derived their name, all the way back in 1984. Two decades on and nearly six years after their last release, the band quietly slip out Roses And Tears, their 14th studio album. It’s rumoured to be their last, and as such it’s as good a place as any for the uninitiated to sample their still unique juxtaposed blend of sedately paced traditional Gaelic folk and electronic elements.
Fronted by the haunting yet comforting voice of Karen Matheson, Capercaillie have appeared in the film Rob Roy and soundtracked Prince Charles’ 1990s Scottish documentary A Prince Among Islands. Their EP Coisich Á Ruin become the first Gaelic language entry to make the top 40 singles chart. Well before tags like “nu-folk” and “alt-roots” were dreamed up, Capercaillie’s music making methods traced a line back from the present day to the scales, instruments and melodies of their ancestral heritage. Their methods of updating those sounds were never likely to impress traditionalists, but over the years the band have ploughed their own furrow anyway.
Their distinctive perspective on the world is underlined by Roses And Tears including just two English language tracks, one of which is a cover version. As a result, for listeners unfamiliar with Scottish Gaelic this is inevitably an album best enjoyed for the cheerily rhythmic reels.
Such traditionalist songs, sourced from the Gaelic song archive at the School of Scottish Studies, are on closer examination made up of several named component pieces. Thus the heinously named Barra Clapping Song turns out to be called A Lioba Có Leathag at the start, before segueing in to Mo Ghun Ur Sioda. On this evidence, the Gaelic titling wins over the English without a shot being fired. Elsewhere on the album, piano man and founder Donald Shaw weaves his own compositions into and out of traditional reels to impressive effect.
It’s not all kilt-and-sporran whirl-y-gigs. A cover of John Martyn‘s anti-war song Don’t You Go, replete with uilleann pipes, takes a mother’s perspective as she urges her son not to head into war. It’s easy to imagine an angrier, paternal interpretation of these moving lyrics, and the perspective shift away from the traditionally male subject of battle is intriguing. But Matheson as the mother sounds wearily resigned almost as soon as she begins to sing. There seems to be little resolve or passion in her voice. Stranger still, a traditional number called The Aphrodisiac follows, which instantly changes the mood from reflection and concern to upbeat celebration.
Nearing the end, Shaw’s English-language composition Soldier Boy takes up the anti-war theme left at Don’t You Go and trips along in major chords with intervals of pipes and accordions. It should be more affecting than it is, though Matheson’s voice is at its most maternally comforting.
More recent folk revivalists such as Seth Lakeman and Eliza Carthy have injected bite, passion and, crucially, their own voice into traditional music and taken it to new places. Capercaillie seem less interested in fighting good fights, creating new sounds or changing anything and instead sound keener on academic interpretations. There are moments of interest along the way as they go about it, yet it’s difficult to avoid wondering what the traditional songs would sound like in the hands of fiestier performers and shorn of their jarring electronic bass and keyboards.
Their early-’90s days of reaching out to the Anglophonic world seem to have been set to one side with Roses And Tears, as Capercaillie fix on their interpretive guise as translators of ancient stories, words and wisdom into a modern but still resolutely Scottish identity.
Yet this is no Scottish Nationalist album of political anthemeering; there’s nothing revolutionary or even mildly irked here. Instead, Capercaillie sound like a band know who they are and are content with their lot, come what may. To some, that’s their charm, and their unmistakable sound should still see their fans warmly welcome them back one last time.