Bagpipes love drones. We know that. Certainly Scottish bagpipes, with the harsh squall they make when the piper slams his fist into their side, each drone struggling to get in tune with the other, struggling for air as it flows through the bag into the pipes. So it’s no surprise that the debut album, The Reeling, from young Scottish piper Brìghde Chaimbeul (“Bree-CHU Campell”) is rife with drones. What is surprising is how intensely beautiful and moving these rolling waves of sound become. Hearing buzz online about this album from a new record label (River Lea, a forward-thinking imprint of Rough Trade Records), I was curious to hear how an album of bagpiping could so capture the imagination of even the most jaded music journalists. But it’s right there in those opening drones, they just sweep you away, fill you up with rich sound. Chaimbeul plays the Scottish smallpipes, the softer, more palatable cousin of the Highland pipes. The Highland pipes were built for war, christened in terror, and it shows in some ways. They’re loud, overwhelming, temperamental, and difficult for drawing out deep subtleties. There’s a reason the softer Irish uilleann pipes are more often used by Hollywood movies (except Pixar’s Brave, which went in on Highland pipes to their credit). Like the uilleann pipes, Scottish smallpipes are bellow-blown, and most often used for instrumental dance music. They’ve got a bit of a burr-y twang to their sound, perhaps not quite as smooth as the uilleann pipes, but the sound is quite accessible.
It’s difficult to say why Chaimbeul’s new album is so affecting. It was recorded live in a church in the Scottish Highlands, but I can’t think of a live album that I’ve ever heard that rendered acoustic instruments this beautifully. It was produced by Aidan O’Rourke of avant-garde Scottish traditionalists LAU and features Radie Peat from Irish outsider-trad band Lankum, but the shape of the music seems to be Chaimbeul’s own. I can only think that Chaimbeul’s got a deeply innate sense of the tones of this music. I don’t how you learn that or how you teach it, but you know it when you hear it. The melodies are shaped slowly and carefully, each drawing out the richest timbre from her instrument, the drones rolling over and around the music like peat-blackened water running through a bog. It’s a deeply evocative album, it transports you. It’s beautiful music.