Thursday, January 14, 2010

David Watson the Brave - Wax and Wane

I have to confess that the bagpipes is one of the few instruments that I have never really been able to bond with. I don't know if that's because of hearing 'Scotland the Brave' a few hundred times too many, or something to do with my distaste for kilts, or just simply that it has alwas struck me as instrument that doesn't seem to have much character, except perhaps when you hear it played on a really good documentary about the Scottish countryside.

But, given my newfound commitment to be open to anything in music, when I was burrowing through the experimental/noise section of Melbourne's Missing Link music store today, and came across New Zealand born David Watson's album of avant garde bagpipe music, Wax and Wane, I thought I had better give it a go.

Wax and Wane is an album that boasts a fascinating array of musicians, playing bagpipes, a bass guitar, drums, keyboards, an accordian and a turntable. It's a mixture you can hardly imagine being able to tolerate being in the same room together, let alone pooling their talents and their creativity to produce music.

But that's exactly what they do on this album, with some incredibly interesting results, always stretching the boundaries of music into new territory, some of which seems so good, so right, that you can't believe it hasn't been explored before, and some of which is so strange and weird that you might wonder at times what planet you're on.

Listen, for example, to the sensational 'Blue Out' - with bagpipe riffing that, if played on the electric guitar, would rival anything that Jimi Hendrix ever did. And then listen to the absolute madness of 'Metal Rat', with seemingly random noises coming from all directions, with spits and pops and crackles of sound, and bashes of drums and then, out of nowhere, it seems, the haunting sound of the bagpipes playing what sounds like a nostalgic elegy to souls long dead behind nightmarish batterings of percussion, and screeches of electric noise. There's the awe-inspiring drones of 'Mescalator', the crazed assault and battery on 'Auld Lang Syne' in '2:47 am'. In 'Dead Hand' there are moments where the bagpipes screech and squeal as if they were Miles Davis's trumpet. In 'The Snakes', the pipes really do seem to slither and squirm like reptiles.

Unlike the incredible precision of yesterday's Rammstein, Wax and Wane is an album where everything sounds spontaneous, improvised, experimental. It's music that seems to grow as it grows. You feel that everything is being done for the first time and that a lot of it might never be done again - but, however odd and unexpected the results might be, you can't help but feeling kind of privileged to be hearing it, and being curious to hear more.

Wax and Wane might not be enough to turn me onto 'Scotland the Brave', nor to change my opinion about kilts, but it has certainly convinced me that the bagpipes have a lot of character after all. They just needed someone like David Watson to have the skill, and the nerve, to coax it out of them.


  1. I have an equivalent prejudice against the accordian and some years ago in New Orleans I was lucky enough to have an equivalent epiphany. I saw and heard a man playing the accordian just as Hendrix played the guitar - and this is a town known for the accordian-based cajun two-step!

    Like a fool, I didn't write down his name, so I've not been able to search for any recordings, but he was so extraordinary that he must surely have been recorded since then. If any followers of this blog can suggest a name, I'd be grateful.

    The Old Blind Dogs might just mollify your feelings about the bagpipes. (Your antipathy to the kilt is, I fear, irredeemable.) A Scottish band, they are part of a 'Celtic music revival' in the UK. Much of it just sounds like Celtic music to me, but these lads are trying to do something different. I like especially their medley, 'Glen Kabul - Trip to Pakistan - the Forth Floor' (available on 'The Collection' [2009]). It's not exactly 'Andy Stewart meets Hamid Karzai', but I doubt whether either gentleman would enjoy such a meeting anyway. Listen to the track in a shop before you buy the CD - their other music can be a bit whiney.

  2. Yes, the accordian created a few problems for me, too, Patrick - I think, more than anything, because of all those little kids on 'New Faces' in the 70s. But then it was reborn for me when I became a Russophile and discovered the bayan. In fact, there have been a few times, late at night and after a few too many wines, when I have gone dangerously close to buying one on ebay - not that I would have the foggiest idea what to do with it if I was to get one.

  3. Unfamiliarity with the instrument seems to be no impediment to players of either the accordian or the bagpipes, with the consequences we've come to lament, Ian.

    So is Bayan Munich, which I understood to be a German football team, actually a type of accordian?