[5 September 2014]
Grit was originally released in 2003, shortly before death of its creator, musician Martyn Bennett (1971-2005). Bennett’s final work, reissued by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label is a fascinating and tragic work to look back on, blending as it does its collection of traditional singers, songs, stories and sounds with electronic elements, and the knowledge that it is as much a legacy of a creative life as a catalog of music. The monumental album closer “Mackay’s Memoirs” is indeed Bennett’s very last recorded work, and was completed the day after he passed away from cancer at age 33.
Bennett was a multi-instrumentalist, releasing four previous albums between 1996 and 2002. Becoming too weak to play his usual fiddle, whistle and bagpipes due to the effects of his disease, he turned to samples and synthesisers to complete Grit, a unique and affecting blend of Scots, Gaelic and Roma traditions and searing modernism. Liner notes describe the “quiet determination” of the artist, and his view of the album’s completion as “triumph in face of struggle”. It’s not hard to see the truth in these ideas. Recently a stage performance has demonstrated how the album’s appeal and power has only intensified in the years since its release.
The stories and songs, the people and their voices, their traditions and the way that Bennett handles them, all lie at the heart of the album and are, in many way, the most important thing about it. Grit’s inspiration to the current, and future generations is the techniques it employs to bring its contents forward, through new arrangements and the use of electronic music. Ideas of ‘real’ ‘folk’ culture are gathered from vinyl and/or original recordings, and made continuous, made relevant, through innovation and invention. Bennett himself noted the effort in the album’s recording, and the conscious effort he made to represent the real in new ways, and not to be ‘misty-eyed or fanciful’ in the source’s ‘Celticification’.
“Move” blends traditions (acting as a reminder, as does the work as a whole, that songs are more than just songs) with electronic elements of programmed beats and samples. Yes, the use of the voices of some of Scotland’s most iconic traditional singers might pigeonhole Grit as yet another folk album, but that would miss the point that Bennett was, and others are, moving music forward as a whole. Bennett’s techniques are those of world building, idea generating, and scene creating. The story tells of the suffering of the Roma, and traveling people more generally.
The swirling, dark, choral intro of “Blackbird” is lifted even higher with the introduction of the voice of Lizzie Higgins, giving the track an elegiac, almost religious feel, descending into Moby-ish beats and strings. A mark of Grit’s success is that the settings which the producer has created are always respectful to the songs, singers and stories he uses.
But this is not to say that the record does not explore entirely new areas. The addictive “Chanter” is a fascinating, alarming, off-putting combination of the traditional and the electronic, which transports listeners into two entirely different, but complimentary worlds at the same time. A sung pipe tune moves into a sample of the pipes themselves, and a spoken commentary is blended with the thump of a techno beat and flashes of electronica.
A personal and familiar connection with Dundee singer Annie Watkins prompted “Nae Regrets”, but the result is a product of Bennett’s imagination and determination to bring out and properly represent both the singer(s) and the song(s).
The issue of religion and its connection with tradition is addressed on “Liberation”, as a Gaelic rendering of Psalm 118 is mixed with a spoken English translation, as music, language and culture intertwine. Again, personal connections with the sources, and the transference from the organic to the electronic are highlighted and deconstructed, but in ways both considered and fitting. The sadness, grief, reflection and regret of “Why” are almost too much to bear given their circumstance. Bennett was a visionary talent who took music far, and that we lost far too soon.
The album mixes tender moments like the improvisation by the artist and his wife of “Wedding”, a peaceful and inspiring portrait which is painted terribly sad, with rave-ready dance territory, which, amid all of the beats and bass, takes important elements from the original recordings which Bennett gathered –- in the case of “Rant”, actual descriptions of music and dancing—and incorporates them into new pieces.
The Real World re-issue also contains two bonus tracks. A remix of Peter Gabriel’s “Sky Blue” is natural fit for Bennett’s flowing style, but the real jewel is the aforementioned “Mackay’s Memoirs”, a fourteen-minute work featuring pipes, clarsach, voice and orchestra. The pipe piece Lament For Mary MacLeod is taken apart and reconstructed for the future, considering the possibilities for the pipes in contemporary music.
It is impossible to listen to Grit without the knowledge of the death of its creator, and it is so very sad to listen to such an intense talent who is no longer with us. The album, and Bennett’s sound as a whole, united and continues to unite a nation and a world with its mixture of traditions, sounds and stories. Bennett’s legacy is that traditions can be, and are, presentable to new audiences in new ways whilst enhancing all of their vitality and relevance.