Martyn Bennett ‘Grit’ LP (Real World Records) 19th May 2014
Celebrating the life, times and musical peregrination of the late Scottish musician/composer Martyn Bennett, 2014 will see the Caledonian electronic pioneer’s legacy marked with both a re-release appraisal of his most accomplished album Grit and a specially commissioned play.
Bennett’s final album and as poignantly proved his most accomplished marriage of atavistic Scottish song and contemporary dance music, Grit would be a swansong. Suffering the ills of a long drawn-out battle with cancer of the lymphomes, Bennett despite undergoing extensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy and if that wasn’t enough, a bone marrow transplant, produced a evangelical-charged Gaelic symphony, both ethnographically tied to an historical Scotland yet also finding relevance in a modern era of political change. In the aftermath of a newly opened Scottish parliament in 1999 (of which Bennett composed the orchestral alternative national anthem ‘Mackay’s Memoirs’, included as part of this re-released album package) and a wave of introspection and identity that came with the loosening of ties from the Union, this collection of evocative and mostly patriotic paeans to the spirit and ancestral folklore would lend new life to the voices that once echoed around the crofts, villages, Hebrides hilltops, Shetland coasts and industrial heartlands of Scotland.
Released in 2003, just two-years before Bennett finally succumbed to his illness, the album received a fair share of acclaim – and rightly so. Hard to ignore, Grit sounds like the distant relative of Moby’s Play, which would also unearth lost or relatively unknown vocal performances from that artist’s own American archives– in this case, Moby would use old gospel recordings from the Deep South. Aping the bold vegan, discerning tea impresario’s ‘Go’, Bennett would open his own opus with the call to ‘Move’, hitting us with churning cyclonic thump of heavy beats, didgeridoo, exotic camouflaged clarion calls and the cut up voice of Shelia Stewart of Rattray – that seems to share some distinct ancestral tones with Africa. From then on in it’s a kaleidoscope of Josh Wink techno, dubstep, trip hop and Enya trance as Bennett manipulates the travelling ballads, auguries and handed down fables and recitals of the revered poets and singers, Lizzie Higgins, Mairi Morrison and Annie Watkins (amongst many others). Weaving to create something akin to a spiritual revelation, as the traditions of the Roma and Gaelteachd come together in a bubbling avalanche of breaks and synchronized rhythms.
Emerging from those veiled times the ghostly resonance of what should be a cherished and happy occasion, ‘Wedding’, sounds more elegiac, chiming with universal melancholy and minimal slow sustained fiddle and a gentle diaphanous piano: a song of poised resignation and regret perhaps? Bennett closes the album proper with the grim recorded parable of limb cutting, ‘Storyteller’, a nine-minute narrative built around a 1955 recording of the ancestral Daughter Doris as retold by Jimmie McBeath. Its’ only companion musically is the low whistling, windy accompaniment of a ghostly landscape.
Whether it’s the lushly, and sentimental call of bonnie Scotland on ‘Blackbird’ or the Man Called Gerald-esque Calvinist sermon ‘Liberation’, each track on this grand tour is a testament to the artists patriotism, complete with the occasional distorted blast of bagpipes. But it is also a poignant reminder of the often taken for granted indigenous voices and traditions of a land that time has mostly forgotten.
Respected by many of his contemporary’s, it is the congruous, and fellow world music traveller, Peter Gabriel who is quoted throughout the press release for this project. He would of course invite Bennett to remix his own plaintive nature’s child requiem, ‘Blue Sky’. Bennett lent it even more gravitas without overdoing the sentimentality; his drum loops and (once again) warped rasping didgeridoo like wilderness calls are the perfect partner to Gabriel’s teary-eyed lilting dramatics. Rounding off the album as an additional extra from that period, (with the already mentioned ‘Mackays Memoirs’), this remix would be the last ever track Martyn worked on.
With the eyes of the world, well at least Commonwealth, fixed upon Scotland, both in anticipation of the referendum for independence in September and as hosts of the games (hosted in Glasgow), the country’s rich but often overlooked cultural and artistic heritage is also being thrust onto the center stage. Its fabled Glasgow school of art is alone second only to the octopus-grip of privileged London institutions in number of Turner Prize winners and nominees, 2014 being no exception with three of this year’s quartet of hopefuls all former students of the school – at this rate we’ll soon bemoan of an unfair Scottish advantage or that this domination is replacing the London-centric one with a new Glasgow cabal. Showcased alongside the games, a programme of arts events will take place throughout the city; with the Bennett play scheduled to take place between the 3-7 June at Glasgow’s Tramway (with previews on 30/31 May) and at the Mull Theatre from 20-22 June. Directed by the Oliver Award winning theatre director Cora Bisset, written by the burgeoning Scottish writer Kieran Hurley and featuring the trapeze and choreography of Dana Gingras, the show will pay its respects to a much-missed talent, as it chronicles and evaluates a short but incredibly eclectic and joyous musical lifetime.