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Dead Rat Orchestra - The Guga Hunters of Ness

  by Jon Rogers

published: 9 / 8 / 2012

Dead Rat Orchestra - The Guga Hunters of Ness
Label: Critical Heights Records
Format: CD


Haunting and evocative debut offering from ambient folk trio the Dead Rat Orchestra, which is the soundtrack to a BBC documentary about the hunting of gannets in the North Atlantic

'The Guga Hunters of Ness' first saw the light of day as the soundtrack to the BBC documentary of the same name which was produced and directed by Mike Day and aired on BBC2 last year. The programme followed 10 men from Ness on the Isle of Lewis as they sail to the remote island of Sula Sgeir in the north Atlantic as they hunt young gannets (guga in Gaelic), a tradition that goes back to at least 1549. The men endure the storms and rough conditions to reach the location only to spend two weeks living amongst the remains of buildings left behind by monks over 1,000 years ago. It's clearly not the easiest job in the world. It was the Dead Rat Orchestra's job to come up with a soundtrack to Day's film. A challenge they no doubt relished. Taking their responsibilities seriously, the trio - Daniel Merrill (violin, cello, piano), Robin Alderton (banjo, harmonium, blown organ pipes) and Nathaniel Mann (traditional instruments Charango, Taishogoto, guitar drums) - went to the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library and researched old folk songs and melodies from Ness and incorporated those into the original music as well as field recordings of the Ness Church choir which performs a unique take on psalm singing. As you might suspect DRO are rather unconventional, especially in folk terms. Their attitude to songs is perhaps closer to the structure of jazz rather than conventional songs where a loose structure is worked out but no rigid framework is imposed, allowing for a certain amount of improvisation. Plus the band go that one step further for authenticity. Not only did the band do extensive research into ancient melodies but also converted a decommissioned Light House Ship in Essex into a studio to record the music there. Holed up there for a week the group, along with Day set about creating a soundtrack. The attention to detail and research clearly paid off producing a sort of ambient-folk soundtrack. Admittedly this critic hasn't seen the programme and the visual images but the eerie bleakness and battle against adversity on the harsh Atlantic Ocean is captured perfectly. The isolation of the island, the gruelling work, the sheer sense of remoteness and bleakness are stunningly captured. With such an album there really aren't any great stand alone, standout tracks. The album succeeds or fails as an entirety. It's one whole entity with individual parts focusing on particular sections of the film and contributing to the final, completed film. As such the album has to be listened to from start to finish. To just listen to particular pieces in isolation just wouldn't make sense and be pointless. By the end though the memories still linger on, giving the album an eerie, haunting quality. It's all rather stunningly evocative and highly emotive.

Track Listing:-
1 Joy/Sorrow (Sula Sgeir)
2 Dods Banjo
3 Black and White Houses
4 The Heather Isle
5 The Geshin and the Guga
6 Sunrise
7 Salt Slide
8 Dods Banjo (Ness Social Club)
9 Guga End Theme

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