Comprising a record with an apparently unintentional emphasis on death, Death Collective’s compilation Swamp Day was recorded by Kieran Hughes at his home studio at the Tollbooth in Stirling.
Truly an achievement, the album brings together a range of artists from across the country to revel in collective creativity.
Over the course of a week off, twenty or so artists passed through the studio, collaborating to create the album, which hangs together with the remarkable consistency that only a spontaneous, semi-improvised cooperative between such artists could.
A lot of compilation albums lack the thread to sew together the various and eclectic elements, but that is not the case here – perhaps on account of the fact that the various recording artists helped each other out and featured on each others tracks.
Without wishing to go on about it, I find it exceptionally encouraging that Death Collective were able to put together something so unique, professional and persistently enjoyable over such a short space of time; and that so many talented artists – whom you could potentially be browsing the reduced section of the supermarket with and not realise – can work together in such close collaboration.
There is a tangible sense of comfort and friendship echoing through the album, as if all of the contributors are saying the same words in different voices, getting at the same problems in different ways.
Track by track, we start with Gilleon Blamford singing “Separate Ways”; a harmonious and simple track adorned with licks of maraca.
The song is short, sweet and full of love.
The track has a lazy feel to it, but the good kind of lazy that you feel on a sunny afternoon rather than when you’re still in bed at four in the afternoon.
This is followed by Lefthand, whose profound understanding of the guitar is self-evident.
The restrained vocals, the well-placed wind instrumentals and the aforementioned guitar work culminates in an emotional and powerful track.
Clarinet plays over the top towards the end, adding a little seasoning to this already tasty tune.
Brazil Exists lay easily apprehended and poetic lyrics over an elegant instrumental structure to maximise the effect of ‘Victorian Values’, a romantic and endearing ballad.
It presents information in a unique way, I’m curious to hear more from this artist.
That leads us into December 91’s ‘Death Song’, which is replete with the frank lyrics, crafted musicianship and well placed harmonics that the artist is coming to be known for.
Death Bed takes things to a darker place than the collection has gone so far, thankfully, they do this in a very meaningful way.
The baritone vocal work, discomforting lyrics, sublime musicality and unusual structure of this track make it memorable and respectable to a high degree.
The artist tells me how grateful he is that Peter Russell happened to be there with his clarinet on the day, and that the track wouldn’t be what it is without it, I don’t know about that, but the clarinet is certainly sublime.
Thrumpy’s ‘Drunken Adventures’ raises the mood and the bar as the album moves into its second act.
Certainly the most active song on the collection, ‘Drunken Adventures’ utilises a creative and unusual blend of styles to make something truly wonderful.
Kieran Hughes – the engineer – offers us ‘First Time That You Die’, and avoids the temptation to make his own tune sound better than everyone else’s.
That’s not to say that it sounds worse because it definitely doesn’t, the track stays classy and old-timey whilst injecting a sense of modernity into its structure.
In a sense it captures the heart of the collection, a light hearted and welcoming exploration of death – with some more of that wonderful clarinet music.
The only purely instrumental track on the album – and a fine, well placed and heartening one at that – Scott William Urquhart’s ‘Wren (Part 2)’ fills the listener again with the sense of community and openness that it seems this album is based around.
Employing guitar only, there isn’t much to say about this track except that it makes for a lovely listen.
Jason Riddell’s ‘Had Enough of That, Baby (early version)’ begins and ends with studio chatter – this fact, and the fact that the track is listed with an un-capitalised (early version) speaks of the perfectionism that this artist strives for.
The vocal and instrumental tracks are on different paths, but meanderingly intersect often; this opposition and unification of elements keep the track interesting and endearing from start to finish, it is structurally unique with a lot going on, particularly for an (early version).
Next up is, ‘A Story About A Band Called Nirvana’ by The Narcissist Cookbook.
It seems to me rare to find a song that makes you laugh out loud whilst simultaneously taking you aback with its structure and melodies.
It’s an idiots guide to paranoid nihilism in the guise of a great acoustic sing-a-long; I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite like it before.
Jamie Flynn manages to follow this up with ‘Live. Die Young’, an airy and introspective song with emotionally powerful harmonies and some beautifully effected music.
This is one of the sadder tracks on the album and is therefore well placed.
As the album progresses, it does a good job of moving subtly between emotions, tones and atmospheres.
I can imagine that working on this release must have been very memorable.
Next up is Norrie McCulloch – the most Scottish sounding artist by far – whose offering is a slow, poignant track underpinned by a nuanced but familiar sounding voice.
It is structurally predictable and repetitive, but it isn’t trying to be anything but.
The song boasts a certain Americana that seems so prevalent in Scottish music these days.
It works very well on its own and in the context of the album.
Niamh Baker’s ‘Sailor’ is a particularly subtle, organic sounding and beautiful song; it is unpredictable and unusual, going in strange directions without losing its integrity or sense of purpose.
With a variety of aspects and approaches involved, this is truly an excellent piece of music.
Trenchfoot’s haunting ‘Little Drones’ follows it up, showing the darker side of death that the compilation has thus far managed to avoid.
Unsettling, disturbing, thought-provoking, well put together and evocative, this cautionary track sings songs of desolation; it’s some laugh.
This wonderful album is wrapped up in style by Constant Follower’s ‘On Old Shorelines’ an evolving, abstract effort that wraps powerful vocal work around some exquisite guitar work.
It really invokes an image of sea-faring with the wallowing waves of reverb and the gentle kindling of percussion – this is all strung together through the hook of a repetitive acoustic element.
I caught up with Hughes, he said that maybe the death stuff arose unconsciously out of a discomfort with writing love songs this weather, claiming there to be no intentional theme of death.
The process sounds stressful, not only did Hughes need to maintain and run the studio for a litany of different artists, but – since it was his home – he felt responsible for keeping it together and entertaining the musicians not in recording.
A particular highlight for Hughes was The Narcissist Cookbook’s performance, which was recorded in a single take, with none of the present party having heard the artist’s solo work before.
They were left flabbergasted – as was I when I listened to it.
As far as the importance of the project, Hughes could only speak personally, saying that it satisfied some artistic impulses of his – it’s great that recording artists out there feel compelled to create beyond their own limitations.
Having really enjoyed the whole process – which included a number of meals being made and interesting conversations being had – I can only hope that this isn’t the last we hear from the Death Collective.
I think this is a great record, and what is more it is a milestone and fine historical record of the burgeoning music scene here in Scotland.
The music is fine, polished, sensitive, professionally produced and thoughtful, it should be held in high regard for a number of reasons.
Words: Paul Aitken