Reviewed by Iain MacDonald
Rent a sound studio, call a few friends, play some tunes, make a CD. What could be simpler? From the sound of Michael Grey’s recent release, almost anything would be simpler! Shambolica! is a rich, complex, and highly entertaining production. Music lovers who have been expecting great things from this long-awaited release will not be disappointed.
Despite the name, this recording could not be described as shambolic (a shambles). Nor could it really be described as a “piping CD,” although there is plenty of excellent piping. Shambolica! defies genre — it’s not Celtic, World, Piping, Scottish . . . or rather, it’s all of those, and more. Well, maybe Shambolica! fits!
Grey brings together a talented and eclectic cast of musicians, and even those less known have worked with many of the top names in Canadian music. This is not your standard, “Hey, how about some fiddle and guitar with that jig?” The tracks are carefully crafted, and show a level of musicianship and production values beyond the norm.
The Grey and Owen Pallett arrangement of “Nut Brown Maiden” is an absolutely stunning track. It features the voice of recording artist Jane Siberry, and some touching vocal samples from Michael’s grandmother, Margaret Grey. The contrast between this piece and the “let’s-break-the-guitars” ending to “My Heart’s in the Highlands” is very striking.
Perhaps my favourite track is “Tam O’Shanter Suite.” This brings Grey’s composing together with a Pallett arrangement of strings from the Canadian Opera Company orchestra. This is great music, and bears comparison with the Yo Yo Ma and Marc O’Connor project “Appalachian Journey.” Pipe band drum sections should be studying the “ensemble” created by the strings in the strathspey and reel.
Other tracks make use of vocal sampling and other studio effects that are artful and appropriate. “Argyll Street Taxi” is a guaranteed winner for the MuchMusic Dance Party crowd, and many people will appreciate the Gaelic content of tracks such as “My Kindly Lass” and “Nut Brown Maiden.”
And what about the piping? We know that Grey is a formidable piping talent, and there is plenty of evidence once again to back that up. Great technical and musical playing is highlighted on a mostly superb bagpipe. One could quibble with the mixing choices in places — I thought the pipes were too far back in the mix at times — but there is no denying that this CD is a major artistic achievement.
Michael Grey has raised the bar significantly in terms of what we will expect from this kind of music, and he has produced something that will be spinning at my house for a long time to come.
Iain MacDonald is an accomplished professional piper and Pipe Major of the Grade 2 City of Regina Pipe Band of Saskatchewan. He played for many years with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band and lives in Regina, Saskatchewan.
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