Album Review: Martyn Bennett – Grit [Real World Records, 28th July 2017]

Anyone who knows the story of Martyn Bennett cannot help but be moved by Grit, his final album released in 2003. He died of cancer just over a year later at the age of 33. At the time of its release, Real World described Grit as: “arguably one of the most significant pieces of work to come out of Scotland in recent years.” Martyn himself had another angle. Grit was his “story about triumph in the face of struggle”. Now it has been re-released on vinyl with two bonus tracks: a remix of Peter Gabriel’s “Sky Blue”, and “Mackay’s Memoirs” – Bennett’s last recorded piece.

When Grit first came out, Martyn had been experimenting for some time with combining dance music from the club scene with traditional Scottish music. “I want to take audiences out of the city, not take the music to the city because that will just eat it up – I don’t want to help that process. I want to fight against it”, he said to Phil Udell in an article for R&R Magazine at the time.

Bennett was a one-man producer, composer, music technician and performer, rooted in his Scottish musical heritage, but by the time Grit was made, he lacked the strength to play his own instruments – the bagpipes and fiddle.

He had always stretched the boundaries when it came to arranging traditional music across genres, but his circumstances led him deeper into exploring cultural connections between the new and the old. Not only was he experimenting with new digital technologies, but also making a link between them and older recording technologies such as vinyl and quarter-inch tape. His sources were recordings of music and spoken word from the 1950s onwards, originally intended as archive recordings at a time when it was feared traditional music may be lost to a rapidly changing society.

Martyn’s immersion in the rich culture of Scottish music, traveller storytelling, Scottish secular song, religious music, Gaelic song and Bardic poetry meant that he could meaningfully weave these elements into his compositions, whilst keeping the integrity of the original.

“There is a dichotomy in this music; the gentle old tradition of the land and the sea against the neon technology of our growing urban culture,” Martyn told Phil Udell in an interview in 1998 for R&R.

The importance of maintaining a connection to the past is also notable on Glen Lyon (2002), where he worked with his mother, Margaret Bennett, a Gaelic singer and ‘folklorist’ from the Isle of Skye. Being experimental whilst adhering to the limitations of traditional means was a challenge that became a compositional device in itself – a limited palette that gave him the chance to do something truly original and groundbreaking – which he did.

However, when I spoke to Martyn about his music in November 1999, he was not convinced that his experiments were successful. He’d been working on the album Hardland with fellow producer Martin Low. In his experience, musicians who were into the rave and club culture of the ‘90s British music scene either did not like his music or believed he was making fun of a serious genre. He thought his attempts to integrate folk with rave music had failed, both in expanding the view of folk music to make it more ‘cool’ and in bringing two similar ‘hard-edged’ elements together.

“Traditionalists (i.e. the traditional music press, revivalists and enthusiasts for the ‘old ways’) found my work difficult to relate to,” he told me.

He felt he had tried to impose an element of crossover into the contemporary dance-club scene, where that idea simply didn’t exist. His feeling was that he didn’t properly understand the genre of dance music and was too inexperienced to know whether a true integration of this type of music would have been possible. Martyn’s attention to detail and the quality of each individual sound and its placement also marked his music out as different from other ‘club’ music of the era, where the source of a sample was not so important.

“I also feel that it was not because Scottish traditional music wasn’t suitable for such treatment, it was more a bias against our own regional ‘ethnicity’ and fringe musical cultures of the UK.”

After all, this was a time when dance remixes of West African acts such as Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Mory Kante were all the rage on certain dance floors – so why not traditional Scottish music too?

Martyn seemed to be trying to make a statement across generations, to young audiences in general and traditional musicians in particular.

“The unavoidable fact about me as a person is that I feel more a part of the old ways, yet make use of the most current technologies and my own generation’s language to express myself in an attempt to answer the question.”

To come full circle, the two cultures he was working within – the contemporary urban one and the traditional one, with its rural, ancient connotations, were at such polarity that it was difficult for him not to get trapped in some no-man’s-land that made no impression on either side. At the time, that’s what he felt had happened – and then Grit came along, a veritable feast for the ears.

Track 1, “Move”, gets us straight into familiar territory with a sample of the “Moving On Song” written by Ewan MacColl and sung by Sheila Stewart of Rattray, with a kicking drum ‘n’ bass feel and ravey synth bassline.

Next up is “Blackbird” – “What A Voice, What A Voice”, sung by Lizzie Higgins, a celebration of sampled vinyl and Gaelic song, with an expansive string section, all accompanied by heavy beats that gives this track an escapist, filmic quality.

Track 3, ‘The Chanter’, has a sampled fragment of “Mrs MacLeod of Raasay”, sung by Mairi Morrison, but is introduced by a sample of an English accent – ‘you play the melody on the chanter’ – soon followed by a lurch into mouth music (or Puirt à beul– a system of teaching bagpipe tunes), heavy beats, power chords, distorted bagpipes and phased drum sounds reminiscent of the era. This track epitomizes the ‘repetitive beats’ so hated by the Conservative government of John Major, who in 1994, attempted to end outdoor raves (generally known as people gathering together to enjoy themselves) with the Criminal Justice Act.

Track 4, “Nae Regrets”, features the humorous song, “I’ll Awa Hame”, sung by Annie Watkins. (‘I’ll no bide wi me Granny nae mair’), before crashing in with rave-style beats. Only here, the beats are in three-time, something that would have made this stand out on the average ‘four-on-the-floor’ dance floor. The track ends with the sound of analogue valve equipment being switched off.

“Liberation” is next. The track contains part of Psalm 118 sung in Gaelic by Murdina and Effie MacDonald, with the English translation of the psalm recited by the charismatic Michael Marra. This is a powerfully atmospheric piece with lush strings. “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of The Lord”. Was Martyn thinking of liberation from life, perhaps?

Track 6, “Why”, uses samples of the great Skye bard Calum ‘Ruadh’ Nicolson, fading in with crackles and his memories of the past in a narrative from The Old Home”. Then there are fragments of “Mo Run Geal Og” sung by Flora MacNeil in Gaelic. 

On the original sleeve notes, Martyn says: “For the Gael, the subject of war and loss has produced more beautiful songs than any other. The fragments of this elegy, sung by the wonderful Flora MacNeil, come from the words of Christina Fergusson written for her love William Chisholm, killed at Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite cause has had more of an effect on the Gael than perhaps even the Great Wars which Calum Ruadh is referring to”.

This is a real painting in sound. The way Martyn deals with the samples is inventive, precise and detailed. Each section is interwoven with newly recorded parts that link them together into a slow-jig rhythm.

From there, we go to the more profane, “Ale House”, which contains the song, ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie Who Never Says No’, sung by the great character Jeannie Robertson, from a well-known Scottish traveller family.

Martyn married Kirsten Bennett in 2002 and the next track, “Wedding”, features the couple in an improvisation with Kirsten on piano and Martyn on viola. It contains extracts from the “Gaelic Teachers Course”, compiled by Major Calum Iain MacLeod, and samples from “An Treisamh” by Miss Russell-Fergusson, along with, of course, the inevitable dance beats fading in. This track is evocative of a home, the sounds of which are magnified in a celebration of different recording techniques, in the same way that Grandmaster Flash did in the early hip-hop era.

Track 9, “Rant”, contains fragments of “MacPherson’s Lament” by Rabbie Burns, sung by the traveller, Jimmie MacBeath of Portsoy. It’s the tale of a condemned man, and in the background, you hear the sounds of tape re-winding – a reference to the recording processes of bygone times. He rants and raves: ‘Aroond the gallows tree’. This is a rant in every sense (a rant is a type of bagpipe tune) – a culmination of pent-up frustration and anger.

The last track of the original album is the gruesome, “Storyteller”. On this track, Martyn has used a whole tale –”‘Daughter Doris” – told by Davie Stewart, recorded in Edinburgh in 1955 by Hamish Henderson. It is a horrific tale of the worst kind of family relationships. Martyn uses untempered scales to evoke an otherworldly feel. The beats are there too. This track works on many levels, each with its own path, juxtaposed in one deep, dark tale. (If anyone was at Womad in 2016, when the whole album was performed live by the wonderful Grit Orchestra led by Martyn’s friend Greg Lawson, they may remember this one!).

And so to the bonus tracks: “Sky Blue” is a remix Martyn did of Peter Gabriel’s song from his own 2002 album, Up. In it, he sings that he is: “so tired of all this travelling”. Of Martyn, Peter Gabriel says: “He gave us a beautiful remix, and very sadly, it was the last thing he did.”

Finally, “Mackay’s Memoirs” is an exploration of the possibilities of bagpipes in contemporary music and was written for the students of The City of Edinburgh Music School to play in 1999 at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament. It is based on the pipe tune “Lament for Mary MacLeod” and is Martyn’s final recorded work. This beautiful music features pipes, clàrsach (a Scottish harp), vocals and orchestra. This recording is particularly poignant to anyone who knew Martyn, as it was completed the day after his death.

With this re-release, Martyn’s memory and music lives on. The huge influence he had and still has on Scottish music is a testament to how brightly his creative energies burned during his short but productive life.