I approached the umpteenth release by Scottish band Capercaillie skeptically. Beautiful Wasteland had what sounded like sampled percussion. Ungood. And synthesizers. Double plus ungood. But it also had Karen Matheson's exquisite voice, an irresistible velvet Gaelic purr. Good. And persistent listening drew me further into an imaginative and flawlessly executed vision of a living musical tradition. Better than double plus good, a masterpiece.
"M'Ionam," the leadoff track, at first seems bound for New Age tedium with its shuffling percussion behind monotonic synth, but this is soon revealed as merely the opening ploy, a glimpse at the percussive and tonal skeleton, of a dramatic buildup reliant on cumulative layers of instrumentation and the evolution of Matheson's vocal into more and more powerful melodic figures, all without increased volume. Things get really interesting on "Inexile," a slowly swinging track featuring the background vocals of the Guinean female duo Sibeba, since renamed Hijas del Sol. They seem nearly to be singing a different song until their antiphonal commentary on Matheson's main melody is made legible by a jaunty fiddle solo.
"Hebridean Hale-Bopp" continues the melding of contemporary instrumentation and traditional style. Quick, dense percussion and electric guitar do a fine job keeping up with Matheson's lilting, playful vocals. Sibeba return on "Co Ni Mire Rium," a spirited 6/8 marching waltz, the Guinean duo's harmonies even more imaginatively integrated into Matheson's long melodic figures, often invoking a staccato base that sounds like "calling me to you," but is of course nothing of the sort.
Much of my skepticism over the popular updating of Celtic music stems from a suspicion that, for many of the practitioners, their hearts remain in pop while they yearn toward tradition. On Beautiful Wasteland, Capercaillie does just the opposite, resulting in a wonderfully inventive and enjoyable recording. - Jim Foley