Debut solo album has been well worth the wait

By Kenny Graham - 31st October 2018

Releasing on 5th November, Mutual Imagination Society Vol 1 is Brian McAlpine’s debut solo album, which is something of a surprise.

Rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Pearlfishers, Deacon Blue, The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Karine Polwart, Duncan Chisholm, Iron Horse, Mark Knopfler and, of course, the wonderful Session A9 to name but a few, one might have expected him to have released more albums of his own compositions.

But then he has been a very busy man with credits on well over 60 other recordings.

I thought this would be one of the more straight forward reviews to write as, from the opening strains of Suite #1, I instantly loved it.  Playing it through a second, or was it third time, I started to write but found it difficult to sufficiently convey how I feel about this music, how it makes me smile – Hard Pressed comes to mind with its generous nod to the great Gordon Duncan – or prickle with anticipation in a moody Piobroch #1.

There is angst, trepidation, uncertainty and pain yet also joy, pleasure, fun and an uplifting release in Brian’s very personal odyssey that many travelling along parallel roads filled with wonder and hazards will identify with.  Blue Grass to my mind typifies the whole recording as it struggles twixt fear and energetic elation.

So what more can I say other that to suggest buying the album and listening to it yourself?  I could eulogise over the way Brian (affectionately known as ‘Beard’ for obvious reasons if you are fortunate enough to meet him) plays his accordion with such sensitivity that the music wraps around like a warm duvet, the delightful cameos played by the horns of Rick Taylor and Nic Bullivant or the saxophone of Nigel Hitchcock in The Tumbler that took me straight to the film of Local Hero, rekindling sentiment for a couthy rural Scotland.

That alone might be enough but then the fiddling talents of Jonny Hardie and Alison Smith, beautifully engineered to create an intimate yet deep orchestral sound, bring a calm continuity to Brian’s harmonious exploration of emotion.

When five of the best pipers around, Ross Ainslie, Calum MacCrimmon, Finlay MacDonald, James Duncan MacKenzie and Scott Wood combine on a fabulous trek from Perth to Glasgow to celebrate the joyous World Piping Championships, there’s not much more to mention save some discrete vocals from Fiona White and Rick and the line up is complete.  Only, that still doesn’t really say much about the music.

Brian has carefully crafted each track from the first note to last as he follows his heart.  His compositions have been constructed to reflect a journey as, like everyone does, he tries to make sense of life’s highs and lows and find his place in an ever changing landscape. In such a venture there is nowhere to hide but then, why should he?

New yet familiar and comforting, this is a great album and Brian has put his soul into it like few could as he creates a fresh role for the accordion in Scottish music.  The atmospheric closing Soundtrack to Peace could be as much a hope for personal contentment as a global desire. May both be found.

Beard, for all the blood, sweat and tears, it’s been worth it and I for one hope this won’t be the only solo project you undertake.

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The Mutual Imagination Society Vol I

Review by Duncan Chisholm

I have always believed that music more than any other art form shows the real character of the artist and not only the real character but the life journey and humanity of that artist.  A person’s musical creativity must be the sum of their experience, everything that has ever moved them and their own imagination.

As we grow older the life experience is in great music is very evident, it becomes more than melodic notes. The harmony and instrumentation chosen give the melody life, colour and ultimately a narrative that we all as humans can understand and empathise with.

So it is with Brian McAlpine and his incredible new album ‘The Mutual Imagination Society Vol 1’

This music tells of a rich life journey.  An exceptional pallet of instruments used on this album brings a cohesive and cross-cultural feel to the recording. It is music that cannot be pigeonholed, just as unique as a great painting or a sculpture crafted with care and attention.

The layers of harmony throughout the album are sumptuous and are coupled with genuine moments of melodic clarity and you will find yourself very quickly tangled in its web.

This album is without doubt as honest a reflection of a man’s personality and talent as I’ve heard in a long time. It is a beautiful piece of art.

Duncan Chisholm


28th November

Brian McAlpine's debut solo album – a journey through Scotland

By Jonny Jobson

Brian McAlpine’s debut album is the product of a long and complex musical journey and a deep love of his native Scotland

SELDOM has a country and its people been celebrated in such an ambitious fashion as on Brian McAlpine’s debut solo album Mutual Imagination Society. A cinematic journey through soundscapes which chime perfectly with the landscapes of Scotland, this is both a deeply personal offering and a delightfully egalitarian one.

McAlpine’s musical journey, however, has been a long and winding one. Starting from his embarkation on one of the country’s first contemporary music courses in Perth in the mid-1980s, through his time with The Pearlfishers and latterly with Session A9, McAlpine’s debut solo offering has been a long time in gestation. The results, however, are simply stunning.

While the album certainly has elements that are recognisably trad, his scope and vision cast a far wider net and as such Mutual Imagination Society is truly difficult to pigeon-hole. Yet, if folk music is about personal experience and place then this certainly qualifies.

Melancholic and yet joyous in parts, it is a genuine journey – a journey through our country and also a trip back over the past 10 years of McAlpine’s life.

Having contributed to more than 60 albums as a musician and composer, why has this debut taken so long?

“I’ve been playing since I was 17 and I’m 50 now,” explains McAlpine. “And I’ve worked on so many other people’s albums and been involved in the process and I’ve also thought, ‘I really need to get my finger out and make my own album’. But I didn’t simply want to make an album of tunes or songs.

“I write every day and I just had to wait until the moment felt right.

“The past 10 years have been quite challenging with personal stuff and it all just started to become too much. I used the writing process as a healing process for myself and suddenly found myself with loads to say.

“I didn’t have a plan of what I was going to do at the start and then as I started working I started to feel like it’s all worthwhile. It all just started to make sense as I started to communicate it.”

McAlpine’s ability to communicate through his music is one of the many delights of Mutual Imagination Society. His soul is bared, stripped of any pretence and his sorrows and joys placed in stark relief. The sweeping cinematic backdrop to his story is accentuated by lush strings, helped to soar with the addition of saxophones and trombones yet punctuated by piano and firmly tethered by the earth-bound accordion. It is at once uplifting and melancholic.

“Everything tied into this narrative of diving into your personal experiences, grabbing a thought or a feeling and then trying to express it musically,” says McAlpine. “Every note meant something to me and even if it didn’t have any relevance to anything else I thought, let’s just go with it.

“I wanted it to be big, colourful, expressive and dynamic and I just went with every idea that came to me.

“I would start in the morning and see how I felt. So if I was feeling a bit apprehensive I would think ‘oh, why’s that’ and then I’d start playing and move in whatever that direction was.

“It meant that each track at times goes places you can’t anticipate because there’s no form in it, it’s literally just me reacting to how writing was making me feel.

“It wasn’t obvious to me before I started what was going to come.”

Some of what was to come was born of necessity. The widescreen nature of Mutual Imagination Society and its ambition is made more remarkable by the fact that almost the entire album was recorded in McAlpine’s home studio. A failed bid for Creative Scotland funding meant that the album was made on a shoestring but that, says McAlpine, helped to make it what it was to become.

“It gave me a new resolve,” he says of the lack of funding. “I decided I’d make it for nothing as I had no money. So eventually I started to phone people and ask for a favour. I’d offer to trade, so I’d play on their album or they could use the studio or whatever. And folk just started to say yes.

“I got two friends who did all the strings (Jonny Hardie and Alison Smith) and they played them a million times each. The brass was always going to be this guy Rick Taylor who lives on Skye. So I sent him demos and then he started to send back the parts he’d recorded in his shed and I was blown away.

“When people actually play things for real after you’ve played them on a keyboard it goes into a whole new stratosphere. That really inspired me to keep pushing on.

“And when the pipers came in (Finlay MacDonald, Ross Ainslie, Scott Wood, Calum MacCrimmon and James Duncan MacKenzie all play) it was way beyond what I thought I was going to make.

“And then I had Nigel Hitchcock playing sax and when I heard it it was unbelievable. I’d sent him a letter along with the music explaining how I wanted to play it and it was like he had my head on his shoulders!”

THIS collaborative effort is what makes McAlpine’s vision come to life.

“WIth those parts, apart from the bagpipes, but the strings and the trombones, I had done proper versions of them with samples and it sounded amazing. I could have released it with those samples. But when people send you their actual human playing it’s an entirely different ballgame.”

While McAlpine’s personal journey is at the heart of Mutual Imagination Society, there is definitely a co-star, and that is Scotland itself.

As an in-demand musician McAlpine has spent years travelling the country and his love of his homeland is always in evidence.

“Over the years I’ve driven almost every road in Scotland,” says McAlpine. “I can’t even quantify how much I love Scotland. So when I was making the album every time I went out to a gig, whether it was in Skye or wherever, I would have it on in the car. So I’d use the landscape as the inspiration. Sometimes I’d be listening and think ‘this sounds a bit small, I need to widen this out a bit’. Just driving about and looking out at the amazing landscapes seemed to play back into the feeling of ambition that I wanted to put into the record – to make it wider, make it bigger, to paint more colourful pictures.

“The whole album is a personal journey of mine but I also think it works tremendously well as simply the soundtrack to a journey.”

MCALPINE’S love of country is deep and complicated. Yet, he manages to convey that in his music. The permanence of the hills, the ancient nature of the landscape serve to provide perspective and hope, after a decade of personal challenges.

“It’s all about personal struggle and expressing that,” says McAlpine. “But the one thing that has always kept me sane is the feeling that Scotland is so old and so established, the hills are there and have always been there, so you get this notion that you’re part of something so much bigger and that it’s okay.

“Once I’d tied that into my music more effectively it helped open up the sonic landscapes. I was able to stop worrying and open up and make it huge and then bring it down to nothing.”

McAlpine’s ambition is to be applauded, but it is his soulful, bluesy execution of that far-reaching ambition that makes Mutual Imagination Society such a special record and marks him out as a composer deserving of further acclaim and attention.

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