July 31, 2003

Lightning Crashes

Gordon Duncan
Greentrax Recordings

Reviewer's rating: 4 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Scott MacAulay

Thunderstruck is Gordon Duncan’s third album produced through Greentrax. Known for tremendous imagination and creativity in his treatment of music for the Highland bagpipe, Gordon Duncan’s latest recording has been much anticipated.

Thunderstruck opens innocently enough with three unaccompanied 2/4 marches arranged by Duncan. There’s not much here to offend the conservative, save an unusual two-bar introduction to the first march. Knowing what lies ahead for traditionalists, however, one could compare this set to the calm before the storm.

“The Belly Dancer” proves to be as provocative as its title. This curious item is by far the most interesting and rebellious of the album, being flavored to suit some sort of Flamenco/Hebrew celebration. Duncan flattens his B and F sound holes to produce the Middle-Easterny, B-flat phrygian scale. This, combined with mixed time signatures and some fiery guitar strumming, makes for a pretty wild and exotic number.

Another medley of particular interest falls under the title of “Lorient Mornings.” Here we are treated to two Duncan originals, the graceful but somewhat out-of-tune “Lorient Mornings” and “Davy Webster’s” split by “Grande Nuit in Port Du Peche,” a Breton-style reel. This track, like several others, features skillful and attractive accompaniment by Tony McManus (guitar), Neil Fergusson (bouzouki), and Ewan Vernal (bass guitar).

“Thunderstruck” is clearly the track du jour for this album, and there is little wonder why. Gordon Duncan’s piping virtuosity is in full flight on this cut and yes, AC/DC fans, this is the “Thunderstruck” mixed together with Duncan’s own reel “Angus Thing.” The two make a clever combination and I think it is the album’s most successful offering.

As much as the “Thunderstruck” track is a triumph the following concluding track is a failure. It commences with elements of a piobaireachd and after hearing it, the purist has to wonder, why bother? The sequence begins with an all too brief rendering of line one of the piobaireachd, “The Battle of the Pass of Crieff,” straight into line one of the dithis doubling, segueing into John Scullion’s percussive accompaniment prelude to a shortened version of the classic Alex Duthart drum salute and finishing with an extended version of the popular “Andy Renwick’s Ferret.”

The fact that the drumming accompaniment is out of synch rhythmically with line one of the dithis doubling gives a strong indication that the tracks were added as an over-dub as part of the postproduction engineering process. I can’t imagine John Scullion being happy with the result. Indeed you can actually hear how “Andy Renwick’s Ferret” is electronically punched in at the end of the track.

The absence in the liner notes of any biographical material on Gordon Duncan and/or the repertoire being performed is another disappointment. For a lot of musicians and their recordings this wouldn’t be so important. Gordon Duncan, however, is a different case. His extraordinary talent and originality may defy explanation, but liner notes might be a start.

Thunderstruck is the sort of album that Gordon Duncan’s biggest fan, Seumas MacNeill, would have martyred himself for so as to prevent its release into the hands of impressionable young pipers. And impress young pipers it will!

Thunderstruck further cements Gordon Duncan’s place in history as the Paganini of the modern Highland piping tradition.

Any recording worth its salt has one or two featured tracks that make the overall product worth buying. The fact that there are three or four exceptional cuts on this recording far outweighs any failings.

Scott MacAulay is director of the College of Piping & Celtic Performing Arts in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Now retired as a soloist, his achievements are extensive and include winning the Silver Medal and the Jig at the Northern Meeting.


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