Eel Grinders
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Eel Grinders

Sargasso Sounds 2001

cd cover On Voyage, English quartet Eel Grinders offers one of the oddest, and most oddly moving, recordings I've heard in some time. The instrumental lineup alone, violin, accordion, and two bagpipes, portends the ineffable, and the band deploys this ensemble to create a pulsing, meditative music, at once trancy and narrative, suggesting a lost Philip Glass soundtrack for an impressionistic Celtic travelogue. Credits are sparse, but Steve Turner's accordion would seem to set the pace for these ten tracks, and can be heard solo on "Slow Worm." Helena Torpy's violin carries a pretty melody when it is not scraping, swooping, stuttering, or clearing its throat, effects that somehow seem entirely appropriate in context. The border pipes of David Faulkner and Lawrence Morgan-Anstee add much of the unique tonal atmosphere of Voyage, playing in interweaved fugue as often as in unison. Both also contribute whistles, and Faulkner's trumpet consolidates the drama in a number of the compositions.

On "Upwards," sawing fiddle beneath a delicate accordion melody is soon joined by pipes, the instruments oscillating between melody and a hypnotic, mechanistic rhythm, at times emphasizing the signature Celtic ploy of a melody emerging punctilistically in alternation with a drone note an octave lower. A jazzy yet ominous creep on accordion is joined by a shrill pipe melody on "Starburst;" the smooth transit to a double-time staccato rhythm on accordion allows multiple pipes to gang up on the melody, abetted by violin. The band's staccato genius is well employed on "The Microwave," with a melody long and sinuous enough to be a kopanitsa, but lacking some Balkan rhythmic complexity, its central fiddle break lending a techno-gypsy feel.

The long title track is almost a movie in itself, beginning with a slow, dramatic melody on accordion with high, single-note violin drone, whistle following with a complementary tune (pre-launch morning - watch the mist rise). Scratchy staccato violin marks transformation to a rolling waltz, trumpet, accordion, and pipes create a swelling, lively cacophony (stiff tail-wind, making good time over the waves). A calm ensues, giving violin and whistle time for a quiet duet before the return of the initial theme on pipes with bright trumpet counterpoint (homecoming?).

As is often true with the boldest music, categories fail when applied to Voyage. Eel Grinders succeed in crafting a complex, moving musical experience. - Jim Foley

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