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Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar
Album: Utopia & Wasteland
Label: Rootbeat
Tracks: 11

It may just be a nostalgic nod to my own, now far-off, youth, but it never ceases to amaze me how much activity some can fit into a releatively short space of time. Since joining forces, whilst still at school, in 2011, and having won the 'Young Folk Award' at the 2013 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and then the 2014 'Horizon Award for Best Emerging Act', not forgetting a 2015 nomination for 'Best Duo', Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar have also had time to release three albums, 2012 debut, Queen's Lover, The Call in 2014, and 2016's well-regarded The Silent Majority.

As if to further amplify the work-output point, more recently, Greg's solo release, Inclined To Be Red, has been augmented with recorded and live work with The Transports, together with his own multi-artist protest song project, Shake The Chains, whilst Ciaran, too, has released a solo record, The Final Walz, and has also been fully engaged with Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys.

There will, undoubtedly, be scores of followers who greet the news that they are shortly to tour again as a duo, in support of a newly-released album, with great anticipation. Having now given this recording several airings, I am confident in predicting that they will not be disappointed.

For many, their third recording marked a significant progression over the first two, which the duo themselves remarked were more akin to studio recordings of their live sets. Utopia And Wasteland, their 4th studio album, to be released on April 13th, presents a further, evolutionary development. Whereas previously, their output consisted mainly of putting their versatile imprint on either traditional songs or cover versions, here the new route taken is firmly one of original songs and tunes, with a total of nine of the 11 tracks being their own compositions.

Gone too is the small circle of supporting musicians who appeared on The Silent Majorit. Here the sleeve note credits delineate Greg Russell (voice, acoustic guitar), Ciaran Algar (fiddle, tenor banjo, electric tenor guitar, bodhran, vocals) and Mark Tucker (production, percussion, bass and backing vocals). Recorded in his Green Room Studio, the production values on this release, are nothing short of first class, as you might expect from someone of Tucker's pedigree, with crisp, bright sounds of great clarity emanating from my set-up.

This is a poised and self-assured release, (don't forget they are only 24 and 22 years old), and one in which their maturing musical adroitness and talent is emphatically displayed.

As befitting a politics graduate, Greg serves up a several songs which reflect social issues, either past or present. His Line Two opens the album. First heard by this reviewer being played on the recent Shake The Chains tour, this is a forceful and resolute reading concerning the controversial HS2, its contrived perceived benefits and the world it may take us to.

In 1908, which has a Stephane Grappelli-like jazz feel, most of lyrics are taken from 'The Liberal March', a Birkenhead broadside ballad printed in the same year. The song asks what sort of society we inhabit a century on.

His third song in this vein, Walter offers a heartfelt insight into the short life of Walter Daniel John Tull, the first black outfield footballer to feature in the old, (proper!) First Division and the first black officer to lead white troops into battle in WW1. Aged just 29, he was killed in action in 1919, and recent research more than suggests that he was denied the Military Cross because of the colour of his skin.
'Not white enough for their medal of bronze
Now your soul lives on'
This is a tremendous track and, as with the opening song, demonstrates Russell's increasingly high level of skill and proficiency when writing to stir social and political conscience.

Ciaran, too, shows his mettle with his We Are Leaving. A poignant and moving song conceived following the Grenfell Towers disaster, when he was struck by the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in Kensington. With a phrase in the song providing the album's title, lyrically, it is direct in its approach, with a sensitive accompanying electric guitar adding greatly to the overall sound.
'Utopia and wasteland, both stand on the same ground
United by their border, but divided by the pound
We are leaving.'

With Ciaran having won numerous titles at the Irish Fleads for his fiddle playing, it is no surprise to find three sets of tunes on this release. The Warwick Road set, has his own Warwick Road merging into Addie Harper's Barrowburn Reel and the traditional Bank of Ireland , on which, in addition to fiddle, he also shows some fine skills on both the banjo and bodhran. On The Moving Cloud set, he plays the Ed Reavey reel In Memory of Coleman, commemorating County Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman and Moving Cloud, the traditional Irish Reel, again featuring some deft bodhran. There is ample opportunity over the course of these two sets for toe-tapping, indeed I would defy you not to.

Two more of the self-penned contributions to the record sees Seven Hills, Greg's own thoughts on home, "Written with itchy feet in Denmark" in which he questions "What is 'home'? Where is 'home'? Can home be more than one place? How easy is it to change the location 'home'?". This is a thoughtfully delivered song, and given the title, perhaps a tribute to his current Sheffield domicile.
His All The While is a delicate, warm, personal number with the most wonderfully melancholic fiddle from Ciaran. A song that's worth the entry fee on its own. Beautiful.
'You make so much sense to me
Give a reason for me to be
All the while'

As mentioned above, two covers appear on this release, the first, Lock Keeper, is a track written by Canada's late, great Stan Rogers, taken from his From Fresh Water L.P., and covered by, amongst others, Eric Bogle and Jon Boden. This paean for the virtues of a more domestic existence is sensitively performed with Greg's vocals subtly interwoven with Ciaran's fiddle. All Fall Down, their interpretation of the Flett/Fletcher song rounds up the 'political' contributions, and the album closes with a final tune set - De Gule Huis, a waltz written just before the duo left for a tour of Denmark which then segues into a very much uptempo slip jig Timmy Collins.

Following their initial rapid rise of Shinkansen proportions, there has been no discernable slacking, indeed the strength of the music presented here strongly suggests the opposite. If their previous album consolidated and built upon their first two albums, then Utopia and Wasteland takes things to an even higher level. To their undoubted talents and technical skills as musicians can now be added well-developed singer-songwriting skills. This is an album to be savoured, confirming their place at folk's top table.

David Pratt