Musical genres help an audience decide if something is ‘for them’ or not. ‘Ooh, I like folk music (old men singing about their lost love, and skipping down country lanes, but not that ‘nu-folk’’(electric violins, short skirts and modern haircuts). So what to call this, (apart from Eas meaning ‘waterfall’ in Gaelic) the sixth album by Iain Morrison, hailing from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and respectful of its musical traditions, but not mired in slavishly copying them. Prog folk, après-folk, folk off?
Other ‘nu-folkies’ like Seth Lakeman have engaged a younger audience with his re-imaginings of Dartmoor legends with his trusty fiddle (and, to be fair a dashing lantern-jaw doesn’t go amiss either) but Morrison does it by stealth and by the cheek of having imaginative, engaging music that transcends instrumentation. Having said that, this should come with an advisory sticker – “Contains flagrant use of penny whistles”. Yet don’t be dissuaded – there are not that many, and they’re not intrusive.
There’s the air of the uncanny, surreal twilight world on Eas where it’s neither safe or dangerous, but there’s also the tangible feel of things on the move, whether that be the line between past and present or just something as simple as seeing the dawn break.
Conjuring the mojo of late-period Talk Talk, opener Siubhal (47) teeters on the precipice of falling as the Morrison’s unsupported fragile vocal shimmers into view before wisps of instrumentation – the swirl of flute, the tap of tambourine, wheezing organ, spectral guitar – bleed into focus lending assistance before the vocal fades back out into the background.
On the mist of a harmonium drone he intones, “You know my most, you know my worst – come home to me” with a vague menace, which dissolves first into doubt, then fear of “what is there to me to go home for me”. It’s simple, not grammatically correct, but affecting and sets the tone for what follows.
When Talk Talk’s seminal Spirit Of Eden came out it was like it was beamed in from another time, devoid of points of reference and bearing an eternal quality. They name-checked classical composers like Satie and Bartok along with free jazz improvisers in the unlikely list of influences borne out of years of studio noodling to provide something utterly unique. Eas echoes all of this. Updating the traditional might sound like an unholy union where electronica and folk music share an uneasy bed with neither benefitting, but Morrison tackles and surpasses this obstacle with a lightness of touch not reliant on either form to create music from the heart that breathes from both genres.
Title track Eas swells from ghostly choir, brushed cymbals, plucked banjo, and gypsy fiddle like some stately Slavic prayer to one whose voice “takes my black, please take me back” whose ambition is weighted with emotive structure and ingenuity. Morrison’s sense of his place in history is evident on the moody A Flame Of Wrath For Patrick Caogach, telling of a ‘”winking” piper who arranges the murder of a blind rival who finishes one of his tunes for him. It’s stirring stuff.
The Little Spree’s intertwining of Morrison’s vocal with that of a female compatriot calls to mind the jollier, more intimate confessional moments of Damien Rice in its whispered “Is it okay to say you’re my love?” Crackle is half in Gaelic-half English and told in a lilting language on the verge of extinction that adds to the otherworldly, almost Cocteau Twins/Sigur Ros babble of words that are known by few but create a mood in sound, while Too Long In This Condition begins with a similar refrain echoing Morrison’s heritage, which seems to document musical composition (replete with looped clicks) and the placing of chords in traditional folk music. It’s an intriguing lesson beamed in and updated from another age.
To The Sea stirs up some pent-up passion and displays Iain’s skilled plying of the highland pipes (or piobaireachd). R.Morar steps back into the pastoral sparse tones of muted piano and plaintive vocals urging today “we live, we live, we live”. You’re My Letting Go begins as a mournful piece on acoustic guitar pleading, “can we just dance while the summer ends” before blossoming into the joyous celebration of the song’s title as it builds towards a crescendo closing an album of depth, variety, history and passion.
The simplicity of doubt is something of an endangered species in music from the 21st century that isn’t out to impress, compress with auto-tune or hide behind the illusion of wealth. Eas is music with its clothes off, standing naked and shivering, but beautiful in its raw emotion and the ugly nature of humanity. And it’s utterly compelling.