Alasdair Roberts and Friends – A Wonder Working Stone

AWonderWorkingStoneAlasdair Roberts’ music is as robust as it is cerebral; an intimate knowledge of traditional Scots music rendered as deeply personal expression.

He’s been around for a while now, recording four albums as mainstay of Appendix Out between 1997 and 2000 and six solo albums since, alternating collections of traditional folk with wholly original music.

He followed The Amber Gatherers (2007) with two more sets of original songs, Spoils and The Wyrd Meme EP, records on which his lyrics amplify the esoteric spiritual quotient of a highly individual take on traditional forms and themes, where music blends spartan arrangements with baroque expression.

But Roberts’ last album, Too Long in This Condition, was something of a retrenchment. Surrounding himself with fellow travellers, Roberts immersed himself once more in the communal world of 21st century song collectors and performers. It’s a fine album, but I missed the humour and inventiveness of Roberts’ original storytelling.

A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City) brings Roberts and friends together once again, only here to weave the various threads of his art together on an album where traditional forms and his own, distinctly personal expression are closely entwined.

A fine instrumentalist, Roberts employs scordatura guitar fingering to produce unique timbres and note combinations, and his interplay with others throughout the album is superb: witness, for instance, the weave of harmonium, fiddle and electric guitar on “Fusion of Horizons”, and the judiciously intricate orchestration of fiddle, accordion and brass (trombone and trumpet) on “Scandal and Trance”.

Or there’s “Brother Seed”, the only track on which electronics are deployed; a particularly striking blend of Roberts’ acoustic guitar, Yamaha synth and sampler with double bass and Howie Reeve’s “shrunken goats’ feet and ‘Celtic’ shamanising”.

A standout tune on a strong collection, “The Wheels of the World” begins with verses in the unaffected, pared-down style of The Amber Gatherers (“Tiny wren, tiny, wren under the linden/ Pondering in wonder the human conundrum”), but it becomes more ornate and allusive – “So sing, so sing the mystagogue, the psychopomp, the twisted god / Within the cosmogonic egg the maiden and the crone” – before ending with a rousing multi-part choral coda: “These are the wheels of the world my friend, you must understand / For two thousand years they’ve been spreading destruction all over this land”.

While the main melody is derived from a song “written by a Glasgow policeman some time in the 1800’s”, the coda, as Roberts’ brief but invaluable liner notes explain, is based on a traditional Irish song. To add to its richness, Roberts also interpolates “The Wheels of the World” with “The Conundrum”, a pipe march whose rhythm he intends should mimic the marching gait of its composer, the wooden-legged Great Highland Piper Peter Roderick Macleod.

The way Roberts combines such a myriad of sources, so intimately absorbed and closely cogitated, in a work of such vibrant spontaneity, is just wonderful.

Roberts’ fusion, in A Wonder Working Stone, of the personal, the traditional, and an inimitably contemporary sensibility, is an achievement of alchemical brilliance. Better yet he’s made it, with the help of some friends, into a work of joyful exuberance.

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