Released February 19th 2011
“Babelfish blew the competition away. No computer enhanced wizardry, no technological trickery – I couldn’t believe all this glorious music was coming from just five guys. The crowd with their arms in the air, clapping, swaying. . . It took a while to come back to earth from whichever place you’d been transported to.” (FolkandRoots.co.uk)
“Purely magical” (Northings)
The marvellously mutant musical organism known as Babelfish was first spawned well over a decade ago, at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival. Amidst the primordial soup of the infamous Festival Club, Scottish musicians would often find themselves press-ganged onstage at short notice, often in decidedly random combinations, whenever a scheduled act failed to show up.
Thus it was that Babelfish’s founding foursome – pianist Andy Thorburn, fiddler Adam Sutherland, accordionist John Somerville and drummer Iain Copeland, collectively of Blazin’ Fiddles, Peatbog Faeries, Treacherous Orchestra, Session A9, Box Club and Croft No. Five fame – discovered the singular catalytic chemistry between their rapacious musical appetites. Having several times whipped a floorful of dancers to a frenzy with these impromptu small-hours performances, they eventually (1998 or 1999 being their best guess) graduated to an official, pre-arranged club slot. In honour of the occasion, they decided on their name, with its implication of many tongues but universal communication.
It didn’t initially look like the most auspicious of debuts. “We’d always gone on with at least two or three other folk, depending who was about, but this particular night we just couldn’t find anyone else up for playing,” Thorburn recalls. “It was a Saturday, there’d been this totally star-studded line-up on already, with us due to finish the night, and when the time came we couldn’t even find Iain. They were expecting a five- or six-piece band. We just piled in regardless – and it was one of the greatest gigs I remember, people were dancing away like mad, the atmosphere was higher than the roof.”
Evolution for Babelfish – which finally bears recorded fruit with the band’s debut album release, International Disgrace, on February 19 – has been a gradual but fertile process, as befitting an authentic labour of love, and a schedule that’s seldom numbered more than a gig or two a year. Those elusive performances have all been suitably memorable, though, including four appearances at Highland mega-festival Rock Ness; the Isle of Eigg Anniversary ceilidh; playing aboard a boat descending the eight Highland canal locks known as Neptune’s Staircase, and the time at Loopallu festival when Franz Ferdinand’s guitarist taught them the ancient Persian melody of the album’s title track.
Steadily attaining semi-mythical status, Babelfish also continued to materialise annually at Celtic Connections, en route enlisting the like-minded talents of spoken-word poet/rapper/ranter Jock Urquhart, and flautist Bo Jingham, who features on two of the album’s tracks. Between them, they forged a collective methodology more or less unique on the contemporary folk scene from which they’ve emerged. “Everything you can’t do in any of your other bands, is completely encouraged in this one,” Sutherland observes contentedly.
“Right from those very early gigs, our thing has been just to keep playing, not to stop, as long as we feel there’s music still happening,” says Thorburn, attempting to explain a sound whose sources range from traditional Scottish to Jimi Hendrix, meanwhile cross-fertilising Celtic, Balkan, jazz, rock and funk influences.. “So it’s all very improvised, very free-form, and very different from conventional folk-music structures – which are in there as well, we all love to play those trad-type tunes, but for us they’re even stronger if they’re balanced by a lack of structure. We’ve evolved a body of material over the years, but the way we play it each time is entirely personal and fresh and relaxed: it’s a wonderful vehicle for creativity.”
That’s unmistakably how it sounds, too, immediately upon delving into International Disgrace’s genre-dodging box of treats. From its enticing, enigmatic fanfare, opening track ‘The Golden Stud’ dives into an urgent, headlong reel, careering through rhythmic freewheels and switchbacks before skidding to a pause, heralding the incisive, affirmative gravitas of Urquhart’s lyrics, rounded off by a delicate fiddle air. ‘MBT’ includes a shimmery, tranquil, waltz-time interlude, the odd Eno-esque echo and a triumphant rollicking climax among its typically artful shifts of tempo and mood, while ‘Aird Onions’ lays a sharp-angled Scottish strathspey over a reggae-tinged version of Booker T’s ‘Green Onions’, framing Uquhart’s gentle urgings towards anti-corporate insurrection.
Jazz-funk grooves – at once spiky and melodious, merry and deadpan – meet minimalist-style progressions in ‘Nightmare’; blues’n’boogie piano buoys the brash, carefree swagger of ‘Giddy’, and ‘Little Wing’ offers a lovingly luxuriant, lingering reinvention of Hendrix’s original. Urquhart alternately muses and inveighs, resonantly tempering polemic with philosophy, amidst music that roams from less-is-more refinement to riotous rampage, wayward adventure to anthemic euphoria. It might be a wholly untamed – indeed untameable – beast, but Babelfish somehow engenders its own internal logic, a fusion of freedom and discipline that’s the life-force behind International Disgrace, an album to make you dance, smile, ponder and dream.