Martyn Bennett,
Bothy Culture
(Rykodisc, 1997)

"Eclectic" and "bagpipe" aren't words you often see together in one sentence. But Martyn Bennett, a Newfoundlander by birth but a Scotsman since childhood, sets aside the usual conventions, bringing a new sensibility and technique to the worlds of Scottish traditional music and techno-dance.

In Bothy Culture, Bennett's first solo album with an international distribution, the musician sets out to explore and puncture the boundaries of various traditional, modern and worldbeat musical genres. Formerly recording with Mouth Music and touring with Wolfstone, he merges a classical education in bagpipes, violin and piano with his unconventional electro-beat and ambient stylizations.

The result is startling. To call it a hybrid of traditional Celtic and modern dance music is to limit its breadth considerably.

It's even more startling to discover that Bennett composed, performed, recorded and mixed the entire album, alone and at home, over six months in 1997. The only thing not written and performed by him is "Hallaig," a poem written by bardic poet Sorley MacLean, who recorded a reading of it before his death in 1996. Bennett layers that reading -- an age-worn, yet powerful and lyrical voice reciting evocative lines of Scottish horizons -- over subtle flutes and bells, then a building symphony of electronic percussion and danceable rhythms.

Pretty much everything on the album could find a home on a contemporary nightclub dance floor ... and the tracks would likely earn some knowing smiles and impromptu accompaniment from your average ceilidh band, too. But even filing Bothy Culture strictly under a traditional/modern Celtic heading confines its scope. Influences range widely, from the Scandinavian nations to Bennett's north to the Islamic countries far to his south and west. Built on those roots, the musician adds backbeats and rhythms drawn from branches of garage, hip-hop, trip-hop and house beats. Nonsensical lyrics ("mouth music") over a layer of acoustic fiddle and synthesized melodies ("Yer Man from Athlone") somehow, beyond expectations, works.

Through it all, Bennett maintains a casual, easy feeling of someone having, at the end of the day, a good time. Take for instance his own description of "Tongues of Kali," a techno-funk blending of Middle Eastern sounds with synthesized jabberwocky and bagpipes. "There are lots of Punjabi folk songs about Kali that have loads of sex and sweary words," Bennett writes in his liner notes, "but this isn't one of them. This is a party tune with a pile of twaddle over the top." If that tells you what you're about to hear, you're a better interpretor than I am ... but I will tell you, you're probably going to enjoy it, and even the most left-footed of listeners will find some semblance of rhythm happening between their feet and the floor.

The tune "Aye?" is slow and sultry and somehow connected to Bennett's telephone conversations with his girlfriend. I don't know what they do on the phone, but they could certainly get comfortable together on a dance floor with this one. "Shputnik in Glenshiel" is round, full and spacey, and just HAD to involve an evening with someone (Bennett, most likely) drinking excessively.

I believe him when he says the tune "4 Notes" has only that many, but it SOUNDS like more to me. The droning voice in the background seems like something Enigma would have done after running out of backwards-taped Gregorian chants. So does "Joik," which plays around with shamanic chanting forms from old Scandinavia.

All in all, this is an excellent album for someone who likes the idea of playing with music traditions within the realms of modern dance. Old fuddyduddies and diehard traditionalists need not apply.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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