November 07, 2011

Flatten the grass

BzzzzzzBzzzzzplop . . . . . . BzzzzzBzzzzzplop  EEEEEEEELike many other people I’ve been listening to Ceremonials, the new disc by Florence + the Machine. Of course, it reminds me of a great pipe band. Florence Welch’s powerful, instant-on voice makes me think of a pipe chanter, except one with a three-octave range, multi-layered, with complex harmonies and counter-melodies textured in.

I just read that her new album has hit the number-one spot in the UK charts, so there must be a market for BIG music that carries certain sameness, and which is highly infused with Celtic style, crazy outfits and wispy heather visions of the moors. She also often uses lots of lower-toned drums, often in rhythmical, chant-like ways, which fits with the current sound of many bands.

Bill Livingstone once talked about listening to the 1980s vintage Strathclyde Police when they were “in full sail,” conjuring an image of a clipper meeting the waters head-on with wind. The pipe band-sailing ship analogy is even more apt today with much larger bands developing huge visual and sonic power.

I could see Florence + the Machine doing something with a pipe band, just as I could hear a pipe band covering one or two of her songs in a concert. Our music is often criticized by outsiders for always sounding the same with unwavering loudness and a dearth of dynamics. But there is no denying that a pipe band at its best produces impressive and beautiful energy that, as George Campbell would say, “flattens the grass.”

I’ve also read some criticism of Ceremonials, contending that the songs remain the same from track-to-track. But Florence Welch clearly works within a formula that rings true with many people. Sometime, pipe bands try too hard to be something they are not and can never be. Instead of working with what they have, they strive to overlay pipes and drums with other stuff, seemingly never content with, It is what it is.

I’m not saying for a second that there is anything wrong with that. I’m a vocal proponent of pushing the boundaries. But some artists are able to hit upon a formula without ever becoming formulaic. They recognize what they’ve been given, their limitations, and get on with making the most of them.


  1. I’m all for the ‘wall of sound’ in rock bands. One of my favourites, TOOL, would have to be one of the biggest 4-piece sounds of all-time. An Aussie band, The Jezebels (check them out!), also go for the epic atmosphere in their music. I think pipe bands can borrow from this to a point, however what seems to be getting pushed down the list just a little is melody. There were a number of medleys at last year’s worlds that left me completely cold and unable to recall a single bar of melody just minutes afterwards, and I’ve been playing in Gr1 for 20+ years. What must the uninitiated think of that same material, I wonder…? The most groundbreaking thing pipe bands have achieved in the past 20 years is accuracy of sound, specifically unison tuning of the pipes. Compare the bottom rung sound of a Gr1 pipe band of 20 years ago to the bottom rung now. And then you have the elite bands that produce amazing sounds, which further enhances the technical aspects. Where we are kidding ourselves (I believe) is in the music. Nothing we’re doing now is any more radical than what Guelph, Dysart et al did 30+ years ago. We are re-inventing the wheel with a harmony onslaught and a ‘Reelpipe’ overdose. The more accurate tuning has tempted many bands to write-in more harmony, and more lines of harmony. I’m not sure this is as necessary as some might think. We’re still working with the same 9 notes that bands did 40 years ago. The Strathclyde Police Medleys of 20-30 years ago are seen as ‘meat and drink’, however they were all brimming with unforgettable melodies. Line them up and listen to them all from the 80’s to early 90’s. The simplicity of their structure made it easy to sound fresh and new each time because the melody was always to the fore, with harmonies being used where appropriate (after the melody/tune structure has been established). Think about a well-tuned pipe band with all the harmonics pouring out when we play something as simple as a retreat. That’s pretty impressive in its own right. We sometimes lose sight of this and overdo it, in my opinion.

  2. ……and as for pipe bands playing with other instruments, there are those bands that get it right because they think about the relevance and appropriateness of doing it in the first instance. Scottish Power’s recent big gig made a lot of sense to me. And then there are those that get it really wrong simply because they think it offers a point of difference and a nod of approval from the average punter. That it does, but not a good one. One thing I will also comment on is Pipe Bands and Drum Kits – please, please, please….. NEVER ever again, especially in jigs! And when they play ‘fills’ at the end of a part………ahhhh!!! Cheese, cheese, cheese! To say it is cringe worthy is to barely cover half of it.



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