bigger than his fist, but some larger than his head. As he stepped on them they
slithered and rolled with a sea noise. The noise rose up and roared upon the
dusk like a wave. All around no life was to be seen, there was no movement
but the sea’s.” [from Morning Tide, by Neil Gunn.]
When I heard “In the Wake of Neil Gunn” for the first time, I was immediately transferred back to a moment in my life that I hold very dear. I had just decided to at large quit my involvement in the extreme metal scene, and to focus my energies on the more positive aspects of life. I snapped out of the elitist attitude that a lot of metalheads suffer from and I discovered the worlds of indie folk, post- and progressive rock. It was a time of rebirth – the turning of a new leaf – and even though it wasn’t without regret, Mike Vass’ latest musical project did inspire within me a spark of sentimentality, and even, a note of excitement.
Bedridden by illness, fiddle virtuoso and composer Mike Vass was handed Neil Gunn’s autobiographic book “Off in a Boat” by his father. The account of the man’s boat journey along the west coast of Scotland proved to be such an inspiration that Mike, upon recovering, decided to follow in the footsteps of the renowned Scottish writer and retrace his epic journey. Before embarking, Mike spend time at the School of Scottish Studies Archives and researched the music native to the places he would visit. He transcribed them and while travelling, Mike rounded up several local musicians to play with them in the taverns of the places he visited. Exploring the Scottish coast became a source of inspiration for Neil Gunn, and in the same way, Mike Vass was inspired to write the music for “In The Wake of Neil Gunn”.
Joined by The Cairn String Quartet and several other musicians, Mike Vass created an album that holds the middle ground between neoclassical music and indie folk. The songs are all centered around two or more elaborate themes with layers instrumentation being added, building up to a climax before toning down into the calm again. A really good example of this is heard on “One Common Bond”, the last song on the album, which we’re grateful to premiere over here. Lush violins introduce the main theme, played on the oboe. Through repetition and the addition of more strings and percussion, the theme is nourished to life before the wind is taken out of its sails by an artful transition into a tense interlude. Next, the same theme returns, ending the album in full cinematic fashion.
What I like about this album is the fact that Mike Vass manages to write melodies that induce me to conjure images in my mind. Indeed, images of boats, the sea and travel, but they are all situated in a past much older than the time in which Neil Gunn’s journey took place. Despite all this however, “In the Wake of Neil Gunn” never sounds dusty or cliché. The album is drenched in the aesthetic of bands like Bon Iver and Message to Bears, while songs like “Fused Dark” and “Cold Iron” subtly carry a touch of Mike Oldfield in his “Tubular Bells II” years. Further down the line we find “Heave and Roll” and this song contains something that baffles me a bit. The thumping beat really makes me want to dance and I don’t have hard time imagining the melody of “The Lock Keeper” in the context of a trance anthem. I was really surprised by the reversal in influences, considering the fact that Mike submerged himself in Scottish folklore and local music while travelling. Electronic music seems to have settled in so well that in turn, musicians of traditional genres like folk, blues and gospel are influenced by it.
“In the Wake of Neil Gunn” is a record that sees so many stories, visions and ideas united; not only the eminent expedition of writer Neil Gunn along the Scottish west coast, but also Mike Vass’ own illness, recovery and subsequent retracing of that same journey are present on this album. These songs are all, piece for piece, immaculate and time and again they hold testimony of the excellent songwritership and artistry of Mike Vass.