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Robin Williamson The Celtic Bard Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

Bizarre but strangely beautiful. File under: unique.

Michael Quinn 2008

In the 'they don't make them like that anymore' stakes, Robin Williamson has carved a considerable–sized niche all of his own. Founder of Sixties' psych-folk pioneers The Incredible String Band and subsequently the short-lived The Merry Band, Williamson has ploughed a distinctively idiosyncratic path (and, for those with a penchant for it, a curiously attractive one to boot) since releasing his first solo album half a lifetime ago in 1971.

This compilation, on the Swedish Gason label, recycles material from earlier live, studio and compilation albums to offer a distinctive introduction to Williamson's many solo incarnations as a modern-day Celtic bard.

It starts with the nine-minute epic, Love Letter To My Wife Bina, a tale of cider-drinking, the Santa Fe freight train and falling in love, and ends with the Wagnerian expanse of the 15-minute-long Voyage Of Mael Duinn, a reading of heroic derring-do accompanied by an evocative combination of keyboards, jew's harp, sound effects and harp.

The harp is at the genetic core of Williamson's post-Incredible String Band musical identity, and it features here on all but one of the 18 tracks. This gives the proceedings a tonal unity, characterised by a delicate but dancing beauty. That's not to say that everything sounds the same - quite the contrary. The growling, heavy-hanging percussion accompaniment in Lady Macbeth throws the harp into unsettlingly dramatic relief while in the compact but meandering On The Way To The Cathedral, the simple purity of the harp provides a welcome counterpoint to the secret rapture of the lyrics.

It's the miniature pieces that capture the imagination. Where the gnomically titled Leslie's Joog manages to be simultaneously elegant and jaunty, The Lady And The Book offers up a compelling, nightmare-tinged narrative underlined by Williamson's pointed vocal delivery, and sweetly offset by his no less deliberate way with the harp.

For sheer individuality of conception and execution, Williamson's seductive psychedelia-tinged pastoralism has no equals, with one proviso: although it's not comparing like with like, one can't help thinking, and favourably so, of the lyric-centred Clifford T Ward and the lyric-free Andrew Cronshaw throughout this very agreeable album.

Those who know Robin Williamson will already have this album on their radar. For those who don’t, it offers a splendid introduction to a rare talent. Eccentric he may be, but he does so make you wish that there were more people making music as rough-hewn, richly executed and abidingly resonant as that on offer here.

Bizarre but strangely beautiful. File under: unique.

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