Monday, February 27, 2017

Folk Circuit Foot Soldiers

1001 Albums To Listen To Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Five
Wolfstone, Year of the Dog

Now that the Celtic folk music revival of the 1990s is barely remembered, it’s hard to comprehend that people ever argued whether the Pogues or the Chieftains, the Waterboys or Loreena McKennitt, was the superior artist. Contemporary or traditional? Electric or acoustic? Into this verbal jousting came Wolfstone, a band from Inverness, whose name reflected an undiluted mixture of traditional and rock elements similar to, but quite unlike, anything that came before. Or, unfortunately, since.

This was the band’s fifth album—though they disavowed their first two releases, making this their actual third. With this recording, they finally made the complete jump from a dancehall band to an actual mass-media presence. By formally consolidating their drummer and abandoning sequenced loops, they shed their former recordings’ late-Eighties sound, fully incorporating the crashing, organic sound of wood striking goatskin. With their embrace of full band, but rejection of Riverdance niceness, they peaked.

Wolfstone had a continually rotating membership; they exhausted more drummers than Spinal Tap. However, their best work centered on a quartet of guitarist Ivan Drever, fiddler Duncan Chisholm, guitarist Stuart Eaglesham, and his brother, keyboardist Struan Eaglesham. Drever also wrote most of their best songs, some with Chisolm. Their mix of acoustic and electric instruments, melding folk and rock styles, creates an integrated sound that, rather than blending two styles, creates one their wholly own.

Saying they have “rock stylings” could be misleading. Some of their tracks show influences of late-Eighties commercial hard rock, driven by percussive chords and a synthesizer foundation. Others have a quieter, more atmospheric edge reminiscent of acts like the Cocteau Twins or Dream Academy. Either way, their sound was already displaced, a heritage structure that belonged to a prior time. Like the folk music they liberally sampled, their rock was a holdover from another era.

Guitarist Duncan Chisholm and fiddler Ivan Drever
playing live at Wolfstone's mid-1990s peak

The band’s fondness for circular rhythms and percussive backbeats reflect its heritage, paying its dues on the “Highlands and Islands” dance-hall circuit. Though their lyrical content ranges from Scottish history to America’s present to Norse mythology, they remain rooted to a sound designed for dancing. Their clear, synth-driven chord progressions and sing-along choruses cut audibly through surrounding noise; even this decades-old recording sounds piercing enough for house parties and driving around with the windows down.

Beyond a doubt, this is a political album. It opens with a track, “Holy Ground,” about the suffering caused by violence in Northern Ireland. They also include “Brave Foot Soldiers,” about the struggle for Scottish independence, and “Braes of Sutherland,” a lament by a Scotsman evicted from his homeland during the Foreclosures. Only one song, “The Sea King,” doesn’t have political themes. Loosely adapted from an Orkney folk poem, it eulogizes a fallen islands conquerer.

American audiences will particularly appreciate the song “White Gown,” about one’s refusal to bow before racism and bigotry. Purportedly, Wolfstone, who enjoyed a semi-permanent status on America’s folk festival circuit in the early 1990s, discovered they had played a concert within driving distance of a Klan rally. Horrified, they wrote a song about standing straight and unbroken, even unto death. With the newly visible resurgence of organized bigotry in America, this couldn’t be more timely.

Besides the five songs, this album also includes four instrumental medleys. All four mix traditional folk melodies with original compositions, though the original tunes, composed by the band’s instrumentalists, have distinctly traditional roots. These are essentially dance-hall folk tunes bolstered with an electronic backbeat, permitting either Riverdance-ish traditional jigs or more contemporary, unplanned dancing. The closing track, “Dinners Set,” particularly resembles the theme for some revisionist fantasy epic, ending the album on a high note.

Don’t mistake this album for something new. Recorded when the Internet barely existed, in a studio that maxed out at sixteen tracks, and sold primarily by mail-order and merch table, this album belongs securely in its time. In the hangover from the Reagan-Thatcher generation, Wolfstone, like other bands of their times, had a squeaky-clean sound and earnest lyrical thrust that squarely reflect their era. Despite politically charged hard edges, this album remains aggressively, soberly nice.

Sadly, this album and its follow-up, The Half Tail, about northern Scotland’s continuing economic decline, saw the band at its peak. After this, Wolfstone struggled to clear its contractual obligations, while two members of its central quartet left to pursue side projects. They cranked out two sub-par albums and a best-of collection before going into hiatus. Currently, a ghost of Wolfstone tours Scotland, occasionally self-releasing albums. Like the Beatles, this sound belongs to its time.

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