1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 42

Spirit of the Glen, by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
Suggested by Lee Terence Brook

There’s a traditional Japanese instrument called the Biwa. It’s a short-necked fretted lute, and looks like a ukulele had sex with a banjo and birthed a baby with the bad aspects of both. It’s used in narrative storytelling, and is played with a plectrum the size of a naan bread.

I encountered the Biwa in my late teens, as part of a shoestring theatrical group touring Japan. As Shakespeare can be hard enough for the English to understand, scenes were paused and punctuated by local narration and Biwa-playing.

The bloke supplying the Biwa bonanza was allegedly the most renowned Biwa player in the country. Unfortunately, the sounds he created with that infernal instrument were so atrocious that decorum dictates I can’t describe them in pleasant company. Let’s just say “vomiting fox” and leave it at that. “If this guy’s the best,” we’d muse, “I’d hate to hear the worst.

Near the end of the run, we were invited to a special show by this renowned Biwa player, performing traditional arrangements and music of his own composition. We attended, more through manners than desire.

It was incredible. Moving, lyrical, euphonious, sublime. Genuinely beautiful. What arrogant fools we’d been.

(Days later, we heard an amateur Biwa player accompanying a school production of traditional Noh theatre. Boy, did that guy suck balls.)

So. An album of bagpipe music. That’s bound to be terrible, right?

I’m not making the same assumption twice.

The Guards kick off with Amazing Grace, with the sound of pure pipes accented by swelling strings and moving refrains. It’s designed to tug on the heartstrings, to conjure up a feel of beauty and national pride. It works, sort of. I’m not one for national pride, if I’m honest, as I find the concept inherently ludicrous (I had no say in the manner and location of my birth, after all), but the noises are designed to tickle your emotion at the basest level.

We then move through a number of traditional standards and impressive film scores, punctuated with a couple of rather odd choices (We Are Sailing?). And while it’s pleasant enough, it’s rather bland. It’s sub-par gentle Movie Blockbuster fare, Titanic in a bathtub, Avatar being acted by The Smurfs. The bagpipes themselves are unobtrusive, which in my mind rather defeats the purpose. If you’re willing to go to great lengths to impersonate a rugby player molesting an octopus, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to fade into the background.

The songs are pan-pipe saccharine, straight from the speakers of the Arndale Centre, piped from an Old Folks’ Home where the CD is constantly looped. There are two tracks with vocals, the first of which – Mull of Kintyre – achieves the impossible by being so innocuous it makes Paul McCartney sound badass. Not even the one standout track, Last of the Mohicans, can spice up this musical meal of white bread and soft broth.

Maybe this will appeal to someone with a little more love for this green and pleasant land, but it’s certainly not for me. I give it 3/10, and while I come away believing there can be beauty in bagpipes, I don’t really care either way.

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