Dead Rat Orchestra – The Guga Hunters of Ness

January 01, 1970

(Critical Heights)


In their soundtrack for a BBC documentary set in remote northern Scotland,
the Dead Rat Orchestra manages to convey foggy expanses of indefinite sea, the
high keening of birds, the rhythmic thump and grind of physical labor.  The Guga
Hunters of Ness
was composed in support of a film on a dying tradition –
the annual hunting of gannets, a kind of sea bird, on a desolate rock off Scotland in the North
Atlantic. Arranged for organ, strings, guitar and rough-housing
drums, it borrows heavily from traditional Celtic sounds, yet it is also quite
modern, minimalist and atmospheric. It was quite clearly written to supplement
imagery and narrative, and yet it stands well on its own in a half-melancholy,
half-uplifting sort of space.


This disc starts with “Joy/Sorrow (Sula Sgeir)”, all undulating
textures of organ drone and string bowing, a bit of beaten drum and tambourine
suggesting the cadence of men working together at sea.  Tracks oscillate between traditional (the
banjo/pizzicato violin dialogue of “Dods Banjo) and purely atmospheric (the
brief, shimmering “Black and White Houses), and, when most successful, blend the
two. “The Heather Isle” rises out of slow-building drone and hiss, taking shape
in a mournful thread of cello and gaining definition, finally, in sharp-edged
guitar chords that cut through murk and overtone. The album’s clear centerpiece
is “The Geshin and the Guga,” its faintly melancholy textures of violin over
rumbling cello. There’s a sadness in this track, but also a sun-bleached
brightness, as its elements had faded under prolonged exposure to sun and


Dead Rat Orchestra – that’s Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and
Nathaniel Mann – don’t always sound like this. Their Youtube clips of non-film
compositions are rowdier and more anarchic than the tracks on Guga Hunters.   To fit their extended folk aesthetic to this
documentary, they immersed themselves in traditional Hebridean folk, including
melodies specific to the Ness region of Scotland. They recorded the music
on a boat in Essex, the rhythm of the tides,
perhaps, seeping into their ocean-centered songs. And, they seem to have been
unusually successful in capturing
the subject matter. Listening to The Guga
Hunters of Ness
transports you to a wind-blown, tradition-bound place, full
of ocean noises and bird cries and the heave and stomp of hard labor. Even
blindfolded, even without any knowledge of the documentary’s subject matter,
you would know that you were someplace different…a lovely, melancholy, hard
place where age-old traditions were slipping out of sight. 


DOWNLOAD: “The Geshin and

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