Martyn Bennett - Grit
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Martyn Bennett
Grit
Real World Records (www.realworldrecords.com)

cd cover Back in 1996, Martyn Bennett released his self-titled debut on Eclectic Records in Scotland. It marked the coming of a radical new approach to roots music. Bennett appeared as a merry prankster, mixing his bagpipe playing with techno beats and samples of instruments, singers, and the natural world around him (a good 15 minutes at the end of his first album is just the sound of a running river).

Since his startling debut, he has continued to let his freak flag fly. Bothy Culture and Hardland showcased his remarkable musicianship: he is not only a superb bagpiper, but a multi-instrumentalist and a studio wizard. Few artists mining the Celtic-techno scene are quite the craftsman that Bennett is, and this is due in large part to his ability to seamlessly mix ancient and modern. When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, for which he has endured chemotherapy and surgery, his music took a turn for the challenging with the song-cycle Glen Lyon. Built around his mother's singing and samples of environmental sounds, Glen Lyon was an homage to the Central Highlands of Scotland that captured the spirit of place in the region.

Grit is Martyn Bennett's great leap forward in combining hard electronic beats and sampling technology, and clearly builds on the Glen Lyon project. His intent on this latest outing was to pay homage to the travelling people in Scotland (the Roma), and the traditions of the Hebrides, lifting off songs and spoken word tales from old tape recordings and vinyl records. One could argue that Grit bears a similarity to Moby's Play, which mixed blues recordings and electronica; but, Bennett's music never comes off as smug or as self-congratulatory as Moby's. After repeated listenings to Grit, it strikes me that he has created the field recordings of the future.

The first song, "Move," utilizes the voice of traveller Sheila Stewart singing Ewan MacColl's famous "Moving On Song," but I didn't recognize it at first. Stewart's voice wails, while underneath Bennett adds some strummed guitar, a kicking beat, and a grungy bass bottom. It's a weirdly hypnotic piece that sets the stage for the rest of the album. "Blackbird" features the singing of another traveller, Lizzie Higgins, and drops it into a hip-hop beat, yet Bennett hardly makes this approach mundane. The song has a cinematic quality to it, the sound opening up as Bennett adds a gorgeous string arrangement to the tune.

Grit twists and turns its way through Scottish folk culture. "You play the melody on the chanter," intones one voice, and Bennett turns the techno on full-blast. Elsewhere, there is a lovely ambient piece called "Wedding," a "tone poem" with whisps of a Highland wedding service blowing around. On "Liberation," he combines Psalm 118 in Gaelic with the release of rave culture; a priest, whose voice has been electronically altered, intones "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes." On the nearly ten minute "Storyteller," Bennett employs a 1955 recording of the tinker Davie Stewart recounting a tale called "The Maiden Without Hands." The story is a raw allegory about family dynamics, and weird. He creeps in with the most amazing rhythm under the story, even sampling the Musicians of the Nile to exotic effect. Perhaps in homage to the last track on his first CD, Bennett respectfully lets the music fade out to let the last two minutes of Stewart's tale unfold.

The highlights and rewards are too numerous to recount. Like all Martyn Bennett albums, the production is outstanding, and even a hundred listens from now you will discover some new sound or nuance that you hadn't noticed before. Although meaty with electronic beats, Grit sounds completely organic and wet. There's less pipe playing than prior CDs, but what matters is that Bennett has brilliantly extended the boundaries of both Scottish music and the modern genre of electronica with this project. - Lee Blackstone

Available at cdRoots


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