Ceol na gCapall,
Breath of Fresh Air
(Lochshore, 1997)

Davy Spillane, alone on the stage on the first Riverdance tour and video, and the Braveheart and Rob Roy movie soundtracks have given the uilleann pipes a big marketing push.

Softer and more lyrical than the better-known Scottish Highland bagpipes, the uilleann pipe is an Irish cousin better suited to pubs than battlefields and parade grounds. Now a duo called Ceol na gCapall has blended the uilleann pipes with keyboards for soothing reflection or introspection.

The music is written by Barbara Gray, who also plays keyboards on the album. She shares the spotlight with uilleann piper Wilbert Garvin, who arranged the pipe melodies for Gray's compositions. Several guest musicians provide string, percussion and occasional vocal layers to the sound.

Gray, in her liner notes, describes the album as "Celtic music ... mainly of a tranquil nature." It will, she insists, "assist with relaxation, stress reduction or inspiration." I'm not sure how Gray relaxes, but uilleann pipes aren't in my Top 10 list of soothing sounds. I'm a long-time bagpipe fan, and think a well-played uilleann is the best of the lot, but to relax by? Not a chance.

There's a lot of music out there today which boasts a Celtic theme or flavor but really falls into the ambient "new age" slot. That's where Breath of Fresh Air should probably go.

Of course, it's hard for any music featuring bagpipes, uilleann or otherwise, to be truly ambient. I think maybe the idea was good but, along the way, the concept became a little confused. The serious tones of what sounds like a Hammond organ set one mood in "Anthem," then the pipes come along and thrash it. In the next track, "Gleann seo na ndeor," the pipes are played over a track of delicate birdsong. As much as I like the pipes -- really, I do -- I find it hard to believe many birds would hang around a forest glade chirping once the pipes began to skirl in their vicinity.

The notes to "Gleann na phiobaire" tell us the piper "celebrates enjoyment of the beauty of nature." The problem is, it's not a celebration, at least in my book. It's sad, yes. Poignant, certainly. Close to a dirge, if you really listen. But a celebration? I don't think I want to go to any parties these people throw.

That's not to suggest there are no successes, either. "The Battle of Brocklamont" is dominated by keening pipes and a sombre drum, and it paints an emotional portrait of a battlefield after the action is done and only the dead and their mourners remain. In contrast, the lively "Chickens in the Yard" is a clever mood-setter, mixing pipes with piano and bones for a sunny jig.

The 12th track, "To the Future," makes a bold transition in the final seconds of the tune. Suddenly, after an album filled largely with mellow quietude, some invisible band kicks in with an electric guitar and drum kit. It wasn't great rock 'n' roll, but it woke me up. "To the Future" is the last listed tune, but the CD has two additional tracks. If they have names, they're not listed and, frankly, they don't add much to the album.

So is Breath of Fresh Air what the title suggests? Well, yes, within a limited perspective. It's definitely something new, neither traditional nor purely ambient. Whether or not it's successful ... well, that depends on whether you enjoy ambient music that's not really meant to stay in the background. Personally, I prefer something a little more intentionally intrusive.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy the CD from