The best Scottish music from June 2017
- David Pollock
- 5 July 2017
Hidden Orchestra, Happy Meals and Mitchell Museum: who you may have missed this month
By the look of it, someone has designated June the month of the orchestra, with three collectives releasing new music at the same time. The first is also the last – the final album, that is, from Orkestra Del Sol, who have had a good innings by any standards. A nine-piece led by sousaphone player Marcus Britton, the group have filled their fourth record, Gross National Happiness, (●●●, Solmusic) with the sounds which characterised their live show, from the frantic Balkan celebration of 'The Final Fling' to the surly, African-influenced jazz party of 'Iye Ojo Bah' and the ska-tinged groove of 'Too Much Fun'. For a band who are (or very soon, were) at their most unexpected and engaging on the live stage, this record does the best possible job of translating that sound to record.
Much of the credit for this faithfulness is down to co-producer (alongside Britton) Ben Seal, although previously the group have recorded instead with Joe Acheson of Hidden Orchestra. Now based in Brighton, Acheson's long, long association with the Edinburgh music scene has receded, but the Hidden Orchestra – formed in the city as the Joe Acheson Quartet – are still his essential cross-country concern (some members are still based in the Scottish Borders). Their new album, Dawn Chorus, (●●●●, Tru Thoughts) is a stunning affair whose 'orchestral' element is somewhat guarded; built from field recordings made over an extended period around the British Isles, from the Lizard in Cornwall to the Western Isles, these rolling ambient jazz grooves appear almost camouflaged amid their location sound.
Orchestra number three on the list is the Tinderbox Orchestra, whose fiercely inclusive approach to workshopping with young talent and bringing in a rich palette of international sounds has informed their debut album, Tinderbox (●●●). It's a confident and diverse collection, although by its very nature it throws up some more successful experiments than others: 'Quetzalcoatl', for example, capably fuses a meaty, retro jazz-funk groove with a pastoral mix of flute and wordless choral singing, while the Black Diamond Express-featuring 'Live Free or Die' is an anthem which surges on strings, horns and an upbeat quality which does a good impersonation of Coldplay. While elements of Balkan and Scottish folk styles add richness, however, there's a rawness and a certain underdevelopment of some songs which suggests a group still getting to grips with their huge potential.
You'll forgive us a wee yelp of delight before we press play on this most exciting of prospects, a new record by Dumfries-founded, Glasgow-based, sometime SAY Award-nominated duo Happy Meals which is attached to one of the finest labels in the land. Full Ashram Devotional Ceremony (Volumes IV to VI) (●●●●, OM So Low) is a revelation for fans of the electronic and the experimental, and it's found the right home on this offshoot of JD Twitch's Optimo Music. Not so much the five listed tracks as a single suite of music per side of vinyl, it begins with a single seven-minute note before crunching into life with the dream-like sensuality of 'May You be the Mother – May You be the Son', a robot duet between Suzanne Rodden and Lewis Cook which sounds like it was conducted by transmission between West Berlin and Tokyo in the 1970s. The second side is a gorgeous journey, a machine symphony of birth as heard from inside the womb, which once again ends on a pealing, over-extended note. The SAY Award may shy from such lack of pop appeal next time, but this is surely one of the year's best.
On the subject of great Scottish electronic music which definitely didn't get the recognition it deserved, who remembers Multiplies? Not that it was necessarily our fault that a band which supported Scissor Sisters and Franz Ferdinand, and was signed to Polydor, fell prey to 'musical differences' and split up not long after launching their first single – but with hindsight they were a supergroup, with Stuart Memo joining Bis, Graeme Ronald founding Remember Remember and David Roy and James Hamilton turning up in Dananananaykroyd. They recently released their 'lost' album, The Start of Nothing (●●●●) and it's a very welcome chance to get (re)acquainted with a band who fused itchy-footed punk rock energy with a geekish appreciation for synthesisers which sounds more right now than ever.
In further 'used to be a buzz about them, disappeared for ages, really deserve your attention now' news, Glaswegian contingent Mitchell Museum are back after a six-year hiatus with Everett Trap (●●●●), the follow-up to their debut, The Peters Port Memorial Service. It's a gorgeous, well-composed album, bolstered by themes of regret and longing, and by singer Cammy MacFarlane's striking, world-weary vocal resemblance to Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, although there remain elements of their emotive, folksy wall of noise which locate them very much in the overcrowded post-Arcade Fire vein.
Finally for this month, the welcome development that is a new BMX Bandits record has always been a fairly niche concern, but the fans who adore the music of Duglas T Stewart are a bunch with enduring taste. BMX Bandits Forever (●●●●, Elefant) is a great record, a selection of winsomely retro, Gallic-influenced indie pop which reaches into the depths of Stewart's bittersweet psyche, from the lush, infectious pop of 'That Lonely Feeling' to his fragile, disjointed take on Judy Garland's most well-known song in 'Somewhere'. Seriously, every Belle & Sebastian fan in the world should buy this record – most will come back for more next time.
Also, in the interest of completeness, we'd like to give space to a couple of records which we missed back when they were released. Dawnings (●●●, Tromolo) is the name of a new group from singer and songwriter Louise Quinn and producer Bal Cooke, and also their concept album itself, the soundtrack to the recent touring theatre show Music is Torture. For the theme to a piece about music's extreme use as an instrument of torture, this is a fairly conventional selection of dusky country-pop tracks, but as ever Quinn's writing makes a welcome feature of her wonderfully textured, mournful voice. Storm the Palace's Snow, Stars and Public Transport (●●●, Abandoned Love) also presses forward its lead vocal, namely that of Edinburgh-born songwriter Sophie Dodds, whose baroque, string-laden compositions conjure wintry images of time spent living in London.