Well now… you’d imagine Kathryn Tickell had done it all in her long, illustrious career as Britain’s foremost Northumbrian piper. There have, after all, been collaborations with Sting, Evelyn Glennie, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Penguin Café Orchestra and the Chieftains, in addition to her many varied proud and imaginative explorations and original creations inspired by the rich tradition and evocative landscapes of Northumberland.
Yet, while still managing to underline her virtuosity as the greatest Northumbrian piper of her time, she pushes the boat out here in hitherto unimaginable ways. Indeed, you might say this is a rock album of sorts. Well, it has drums – and pretty ferocious ones at times, too – as well as plenty of vocals from Kate Young, Amy Thatcher and Tickell herself. With Thatcher on accordeon, Young on fiddle and Joe Truswell on drums, joined by Kieran Szifris (octave mandolin) and Cormac Byrne (bodhran and percussion), The Darkening swiftly put down their marker as a band with something to say… and it’s not ‘we are Ms Tickell’s accompaniment for the evening.’
This is a bold album and perhaps even risky too; that strong rhythm line-up ensures things sometimes get fast and furious, although strange and spooky is usually also just around the corner. But Kathryn has never been one to shirk a challenge and above all she has the class, skill, belief and confidence to make it work. Opening track O-U-T Spells Out is a formidable statement of intent, driven along by the Thatcher accordeon while the percussion goes into overdrive with an almost hip hop feel and whispered vocals and synth effects kick in to what must surely be read as a pertinent rebuke to the whole sorry Brexit nonsense.
There’s a certain weirdness about Nemesis, too, with a tune and lyric attributed to Mesomedes, a Greek poet who also served as a freedman (former slave) at around the time Hadrian was building the wall referenced in the opening track. Ancient and modern and weird and wonderful rub shoulders throughout the entire album in constantly unexpected fashion; but Tickell’s dancing pipes are never far from the action to pull it all back when it threatens to get too dark and mystical. At its best, it lifts the heart and sets the pulses racing with rich fervour.
There’s even an unaccompanied song, Darlington (with harmonies and everything), and a poem by Kathryn’s dad Mike Tickell, Holywell Pool, set to music with the sounds of the river outside Kathryn’s house acting as rhythmic accompaniment. A while ago that would have been dubbed something absurd like ‘weird folk’ or ‘alt folk’.
Whatever you might have expected from a new Tickell album, this probably isn’t it. It may even turn off some longstanding fans… but it deserves to attract a lot of new ones too. Hear a track on fRoots 72.