I simply am not a purist--i.e. one who believes art must adhere to an immovable standard, formula, genre, or particular characteristics in order to carry validity. I am also not that much of a traditionalist: I think positive, healthy traditions can be beneficial to individuals and communities, but tradition seemingly for its own sake should be questioned and carefully evaluated, to ensure that they are not harmful either to individuals or to a just, humane society, nor simply a tool used by a certain party for unfair or ulterior reasons (i.e. to allow one group control or manipulation of another.) One of the spheres within our society rifest for the pursuit of experimentation and progress (often in that order) is that of art-- such as drawing, painting, photography, filmmaking, sculpting, writing, and, of course, music. The truly wondrous part of art is the *artists*. Consistently throughout history, across societies and civilizations, we find individuals and groups of people carrying the remarkable ability to, in various ways, gather the materials around them (whether physical or intellectual), and create some piece piece anew that excites the body, mind, and spirit, and/or which we can look to as some reflection of human life, times, thought, and feelings. That is why I feel art can be regarded as a synthesis or fusion: artists gather materials and inspirations, ranging from the observations of human nature surrounding them to, in the case of a musician perhaps a hollowed gourd, or for a painter, the natural pigments found throughout the world, to create a final product dependent on yet grater than the sum of its parts, and with the potential to be beneficial both to the individual (self-expression), and to society at large (the trading of ideas and perspectives.) While it is important to appreciate and keep record of the artistic ideas and styles that evolve over the years, music, like any art, will naturally change and evolve over time, and I think the strongest traditions are fluid: that is, room for development, and the true flourishing of artists, is provided, as change and experimentation is regarded as acceptable and natural. We should strive to be mindful and acknowledging of traditions, but open to their continuing development as a part of human society. As humans continue, art will continue, and new traditions will continue to evolve.
In this case, I find Capercallie to be a delightful blend of traditional Scottish music and more contemporary touches. Throughout the diverse and experimental ten tracks of 'Sidewaulk', the band loses none of the powerful energy or vitality so associated with Celtic music, and complements this with an innovative electrified rhythm sections and tantalizing touches of the New Age. Some reviewers take issue with the presence of synthesizers on some tracks. Firstly, I would say that their use is fairly subtle and sparing, and does not at all dominate the traditional instruments or vocals--in other words, 'Sidewaulk' does not sound like any old mediocre 1980s pop record. I personally also find the blend of instrumentation aesthetically appealing. Another favorite Celtic/fusion group of mine is the more recent Kila, and while Kila's musicians are Irish, when I listen to Capercaillie, I sometimes wonder if Kila, which rose to prominence in the mid-late '90s, were influenced by this '80s-born group. The opener of this record, an energetic musical and vocal highlight titled, in Scots Gaelic, 'Alasdair Mhic Cholla Ghasda', almost seems to be echoed with the fade-in that begins 'The Compledgegationist', (a made-up word to my knowledge), the opening track of Kila's excellent 2000 album, Lemonade & Buns, and the incorporation of bases, electric guitars and keyboards to traditional Celtic rhythms and melodies is certainly a common element of both groups.
So Capercaillie, while it incorporates many strong traditional Celtic influences, is in no way afraid of moving beyond them. This is not a strictly traditional group, so if fusion-oriented music isn't your thing, be advised that this album may not be to your tastes. For me, I love the blend of sounds going on here. Lead singer Karen Matheson has a lovely, enchanting voice, well-suited both to the Scots and English language. To witness her virtuosity, listen to track 6, the Gaelic, 'Fosgail an Dorus//Nighean Bhuaidh' , and track 8, 'Both Sides the Tweed' back to back. The former is an energetic, rather fun medley of two traditional tunes, while 'Tweed', a more recent composition is a slow-tempo, reflective song about finding harmony and peace between societies ('Tweed', in this case, refers to a river near the border of England and Scotland.) Matheson renders both tracks beautifully--the former pulsating, the latter soft, serene, and profound. Listening to these two sublime tracks, one can sees how well--at least in my opinion--Matheson's voice is suited to a variety of musical styles and forms. 'Tweed' is a particular highlight of the album, using poetic lyrics to convey a powerful social message: "Let friendship and honor unite, and flourish on both sides the Tweed... think them poorest who can be a slave, and richest who dare to be free."
Apart from just about anytime Matheson opens her mouth, I find track 4, Sidewaulk Reels, and track 7, The Turnpike, to be particular highlights. The instrumental tracks are as energetic and exciting as the best Celtic jigs and reels, combining lovely sounds of fiddle, concertina, whistle, and recorder (a personal favorite of mine), with a great rhythm section, featuring some decidedly meaty bits of back-up from the bass guitar player. Donald Shaw's concertina does tend to dominate many tunes, while I myself prefer the flowing, flying sounds of recorder and fiddle, but this is a minor reservation for me as I still find these sets excellent overall, and there is a remarkably energetic and appealing effect gain by placing the old-style concertina alongside Capercaillie's astounding, electrified rhythm section--a striking contrast, if you will. I am listening to The Turnpike now, hearing some delight fiddle interludes, as the rhythm section grooves not quite like anything else I've ever heard--and then, without missing a beat, we dive straight from one melody to the brilliant next, into an invigorating concertina workout--sublime.
Overall, if you enjoy Celtic music, including Scots-language vocals, with generous overtones of New Age and pop-ish music, or you enjoy good experimental/fusion-oriented music, do give this talented group a try. While those of more strict traditionalist tendencies may not enjoy it as much, I think anyone approaching this group with an open musical mind will likely find *something* enjoyable or interesting about it. Personally, I find this sort of experimentation, fusion, and progress fascinating, and wish such beautiful music as that made by Capercaillie were more widely known and available. Society should promote art, and the music of Capercaillie is most definitely artistic. Giving something a little different a try, and maybe you'll float away, as I have, on this enchanting blend of songs and sounds.