Alasdair Roberts – Pangs (4 stars)

Alasdair Roberts – Pangs

Alex Neilson, Stevie Jones and guests join Alasdair Roberts for his eighth album

'Tell me the marvels you saw on your rambles,' sings Alasdair Roberts towards the end of Pangs, the latest chapter in his reimagining of old weird Caledonia. 'I saw a calabash in Amarillo,' comes the reply, followed by a litany of wonders from across the globe. It's testament to the scope of Roberts' syncretic vision that he can cast his net so widely, while remaining rooted in the folklore of these islands.

Pangs is the Glasgow-based singer-songwriter's eighth album, not including collaborative projects such as Urstan with Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison and last year's Plaint of Lapwing with multi-instrumentalist James Green. His last album for Drag City, 2015's Alasdair Roberts, was an austere, but deeply rewarding solo collection. Pangs sees the return of regular collaborators Stevie Jones, Alex Neilson, Rafe Fitzpatrick and Tom Crossley, plus Debbie Armour on backing vocals and Jessica Kerr on cello. But unlike 2013's A Wonder Working Song – a sprawling occult ceilidh of an album, full of guest appearances – Pangs derives its energy from the core trio of Roberts, Jones and Neilson. While both musicians have played separately on previous Roberts albums, and together in avant-folk supergroup Sound of Yell, they come into their own as a rhythm section here. For all the brilliance of Roberts' finger-picked guitar, none of his prior albums have had such rhythmic vitality. 'The Angry Laughing God' skips along at a fair old pace, rising to a gallop in its final section, while 'The Downward Road' explodes in a riot of whoops, whistles and whip-cracks.

Roberts and his collaborators augment the basic tracks with electric guitar, synth, organ, fiddle, cello and flute, but the results are never overcooked. It's notable how playful the arrangements are, not least in the eccentric gurgles and squeaks of Roberts' analogue synth. Crossley's flute and Armour's backing vocals are beautifully judged, bringing lightness and colour, without being overly pretty. From the swirling medieval folk-rock of 'Pangs' to the stately balladry of 'The Breach', this is one of Roberts' most accomplished albums to date.

Out Fri 24 Feb.

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