Wolfstone, The Chase (Green Linnet, 1992)

Wolfstone, Unleashed (Green Linnet, 1991)

Wolfstone, Wolfstone: Captured Alive (self-released, 1992)

 

Since the early Nineties, Wolfstone has been one of the most interesting modern Celtic bands to pay attention to. Starting as a mostly traditional Celtic-music band with a severe desire to rock out, they slowly progressed towards a more contemporary and often harder-edged sound by the mid-Nineties. And, more recently, they have mellowed out some, exploring both their contemplative and their pop-oriented sides. During these progressions, Wolfstone has proven itself to be an imaginative, evolving band.

The original line-up -- including the fiddle of Duncan Chisholm and acoustic guitar and vocals of Ivan Drever complemented by the electric guitar of Stuart Eaglesham, the keyboards of Struan Eaglesham among other -- established Wolfstone as a group of Scottish musicians firmly planted in two musical traditions: Celtic and rock. Their particular genius lay in orchestrating Celtic tunes with rock sensibilities and helped to create a pleasing, complex, and musically very adept repertoire.

Wolfstone's first effort, Unleashed, is a good example of a young, talented band not quite expressing on record what it wants to. The majority of the CD consists of a strange, compelling mix of modern rock styles and more traditional Celtic idioms. On "Cleveland Park," the CD's opening song, a pretty,

light melody on a harpsichord-sounding synthesizer turns into a lively jig involving more traditional Celtic instruments such as the fiddle and whistle. Suddenly, an overdrived electric guitar makes its presence known. Although there's some feedback, the song still remains firmly traditional in melody and rhythm.

Things get much more interesting later in the album, when more modern sensibilities invade. "The Silver Spear," a very ethereal song resembling very late Roxy Music, kicks into a free-flowing reel with a vigorous acoustic guitar. "The Howl" is much like "The Silver Spear": an interesting combination of rock and Celtic ideas melded very well together. "Here Is Where the Heart Is" is a sweet, compelling set of tunes ending in a song about one's true home land. Finally, "Erin" is the best of the crop: energetic, vital Celtic music played as only people deeply in love with the art form can play it.

Unfortunately, this disk suffers from a couple of plodding songs. "Song for Yesterday" and "A Hard Heart" are both Wolfstone-original songs whose seriousness catches up with them. They both have the feel of trying too hard; and that over-effort creates a strained feeling (Unfortunately, this same quality will continue to plague Wolfstone throughout its career). Nevertheless, these foibles aside, this is an excellent first recording.

Although their first album has fairly strong rock sounds in it, it still is a mostly traditional album: the Celtic sounds of the whistle, fiddle, and pipes outweigh the electric and bass guitars. Wolfstone's second effort, The Chase, shows us exactly what the reward can be when one's quarry is a more modern style: almost pure excellence.

From the hard-edged guitar of the opener "Tinnie Run" to the mournful closing song "Cannot Lay Me Down," Wolfstone proves that rock idioms can enhance and improve Celtic themes. Even the original songs, which were the bane of the band in the last album, come out sparkling in this CD. There are more of them here than before: a preview of things to come in the next album. "Glass and The Can" is a catchy drinking tune with a driving bass riff. "The Prophet" -- about an executed Highland seer -- has a mid-Eighties guitar sound to it which, combining with some pipes makes for a very listenable, enjoyable song. "Flames and Hearts" tends to be a bit too serious, but it still benefits from a fine fiddle tune embedded in the middle of it. "Close It Down" is protest against the diminishing industry of Scotland. It sounds like an old song; it's very surprising that it is a Wolfstone original.

However, like the previous album, Wolfstone's real talent here comes out in its instrumental tunes. They prove their talent in orchestrating compelling Celtic melodies within thoroughly modern frameworks. "Tinnie Run" is a set of Celtic hard-rock tunes. "The Ten-Pound Float" is good example of a solid guitar-oriented Celtic tune with a very modern sense of rhythm and a healthy dose of fiddle action. "Jake's Tune" is a slow, delicate melody that elegantly combines fiddle, pipe, and overdrived electric guitar. But the best of this variety of pieces is clearly "The Appropriate Dipstick": pipe reels played to the background of a jazzy piano riff. The odd jazz chords give the pipes a tasty, American flavor that would be lost within a more traditional set-up.

The Chase ends with two very catchy songs, "The Early Mist" -- a modern pop ditty about an invisible war over Scotland -- and "Cannot Lay Me Down" of the traditional "longing-for-home" variety. Although the lyrics are not always the strongest ever written, the endings of these two songs clearly make the listener think, this CD was far too short!

As much as listening to their CDs is fun, upon watching the video Wolfstone: Captured Alive, one realizes that seeing them in concert is the true way to capture Wolfstone at their best. The majority of the material is taken from their second CD, The Chase with a few selections from Unleashed and one or two non-disk tunes. On this videotape, these lads show themselves to be musicians of good caliber, energy, and enthusiasm as well as deep lovers of both the music they play and the audience who likes to listen to them.

[Brendan Foreman]

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