Reviews

Alasdair Roberts & Robin RobertsonAlasdair Roberts & Robin Robertson
Album: Hirta Songs
Label: Stone Tape
Tracks: 10
Website: http://www.stonetaperecordings.co.uk

Alasdair's already impressive CV - both as a solo artist and a willing and versatile inveterate compulsive collaborator - is here further boosted by this, his eighth studio record, on which he collaborates with Scottish poet Robin Robertson on a concept album of sorts that's inspired by the people, landscape and history of the exceedingly remote Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, situated 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. Even more remote now, of course, since all its human inhabitants were evacuated over 80 years ago at their own request after losing their battle with disease, child mortality and the elements.

At its most basic level, Hirta Songs delivers what amounts to a suite of eight settings by Alasdair of poems by Robin, the majority of which either depict a specific aspect of life on St. Kilda or retell a local legend. The exception is the epic Leaving St. Kilda, which through a kind of litany of place-names chronicles the visitor's own impressions on his circumnavigation of the isle. The germ of Hirta Songs was a trip to the island that Robin made with Karin Altenberg in 2007, which made a very deep impression on them both and resulted in the writing of two very special poems (The Well Of Youth and Leaving St. Kilda), both of which form the core of Hirta Songs and are memorably and intensely recited (intoned) by the poet himself to a creatively fluid harp backdrop from Corrina Hewat. The remainder of the poems were written during the next few years, with settings quickly following on; Alasdair's settings, sung in his distinctive and attractive folky burr and self-accompanied on his own deft fingerstyle guitar, also variously involve musicians from his regular working ensemble (Tom Crossley, Rafe Fitzpatrick and Stevie Jones) and two guests - the aforementioned Corrina Hewat (here at her most magically expressive) and Robin Williamson (playing hardanger fiddle).

The settings often sound very traditional; indeed, some (e.g. Farewell To The Fowler) are based on existing ballad or folksong melodies, while two others (Exodus and The Drum Time) rather aptly utilise a pibroch melody and ground respectively, the latter also adapting the melody of a Gaelic waulking song. Overall, the musical climate is low-key; it may sound bleak, and, much like the climate and landscape depicted, decidedly barren and sometimes storm-tossed, but the sense of being there is palpable in the extreme.

Although I've viewed with great interest and fascination several documentaries about St. Kilda, I've never been there - but I actually feel I have now, after experiencing this supremely evocative poetry in such evocative settings. Elements such as the almost overpowering sight, sounds and smells of the gannetry on A Fall Of Sleet; the misfortune of an islander falling to his death while collecting fulmars (for food) on Farewell To The Fowler; the mysticism of The Plain Of Spells, with its cautiously jaunty jig rhythm; the proscribed paganist ritual of The Drum Time; all of these experiences are powerfully yet economically conveyed by Alasdair's masterly, idiomatic and sympathetic music. The album also contains a pair of instrumental interludes, where Corrina treats us to expertly phrased renditions of the melodies of two Gaelic songs with St. Kildan connections. Hirta Songs can be regarded as an artistic triumph for all involved; it may provide a determinedly melancholy experience for the listener, not exactly easy listening for sure, but it's also significantly inspiring in nature, an album whose impact you're unlikely to forget.

David Kidman