Seven Nations, The Factory (Seven Nations, Inc, 1999)

It’s almost inexcusable that I could have had this particular gem in my collection for so long and not written a review of it. I confess, then, that I was saving it for a rainy day, and as I fear I may have to start building an ark later tonight, I might as well share my opinions on this lovely piece of “thrash Celtic.”

Despite an overabundance of Celtic blood in my veins, passed on by the typical melting pot of English/Scots/Irish, I have no overwhelming love for the music. I like it, all right, but overdose easily. There’s that, and my self-professed love for the FHL theory. (Faster, Harder, Louder.) Luckily, The Factory succeeds on all of those levels, coming across as an energetic blend of Celtic, rock, and a few esoteric genres which I’ll describe later on in the review.

Seven Nations themselves consists of Kirk McLeod (vocals, guitars, piano and highland bagpipes), Strudy (bass guitars), Ashton Geoghagan (drums), Scott Long (highland bagpipes, shuttle pipes) and Dan Stacey (fiddle, violin, and feet(!)). As well, they’re joined by guest musicians Steve Holley, Richard Fordus, Stuart Cameron, and the Amazing Grace Choir, who add a variety of instruments and vocals to assorted tracks.

I’ll say it up front: The Factory has bagpipes. Lots of them. In fact, it pretty much starts off with an amazing bagpipe instrumental that soon launches into “The Factory Song,” a curious ballad based upon a handcar/traditional song and modified by Kirk McLeod for this album. It’s an energetic song with a trace of melancholy and regret, a tale of the men working day and night in a factory, the sort of song they might have sung to keep up their pace and rhythm while working. With lyrics like “I share this cellar with five of my friends / when the big bell rungs our day’s at an end / We clear our throats from the dusty air / the machinery’s din we always hear,” you get a good feeling for the conditions they have to deal with. Other lyrics pray that “If we should die before I make it back home / please carry me home” and “Even when we sleep do we fall from grace?” All in all, it’s a powerful song, and the perfect introduction to the album.

The next track, “This Season” takes on a somber feel, telling a tale of sadness, anger, love and memory. The lyrics are poignant and evocative, with “I will remember you this way / as sure as the night divides the day / as sure as the sun goes down” to speak strongly of the power of remembrance. Bagpipes, drums, fiddles, vocals and even electric guitars weave together to generate a dark and touching song.

“Soft Gator Girl” eschews vocals for a purely instrumental medley based on the traditional “The Fox Hunters/ Donald Willie and His Dog,” which gives the band a chance to shine forth with fiddle, percussion and shuttle pipes. Another powerful effort, which sets the feet to moving in a good Highland-style dance. It’s the very sort of song the Fae might play to encourage their mortal guests to join in on a clear Midsummer night.

The vocals return, just in time for “The Ballad of Calvin Crozier,” and they’re quite welcome in this tragic song of a man who “returned and gave his life for another man” after the end of the Civil War. (I assume it’s the Civil War, based on the mention of Union soldiers, and the mention that it was “four long years.” I could be wrong.) It urges the “good people of this town” to listen, and know the name of Calvin Crozier, who fought and has seen blood and tears, and returned home, only to end up digging his own grave and die while Union soldiers danced on his grave all night long.” Okay, not very cheerful, but it’s a very powerful song nonetheless, mixing bagpipes and electric guitar to blend the old and the new.

“Twelve” slows things down for another song of love and loss and desire and blame. Slow and patient, it builds gradually into something of a ballad, offering up lyrics like “Out from the ashes of gray desire / Out from the dreams and into the fire / I said a lot, it won’t mean a thing / after she’s gone these words will sing.”

Then we move on to “The Paddy Set,” another traditional-based song with an interesting military feel to it, starting as it does with bagpipes and drums and the background noise of a commander putting his troops through their paces. It segues nicely into a strong, strident drums and percussion beat, highly evocative of action and chaos. Electric guitars launch in as well, setting a rough and rapid pace that ends very abruptly.

“N.O.T. (I Want My People Back)” carries the refrain of “I want my people back / I want them here with me / I want my people back here with me” in between tales of men going to war against the Czar in Russia. As the song says, “Six young men from the 93rd / At Balaclava bravely heard / Colin Campbell’s plea to stand their ground / They made their way back home again / Far away from the battle din / To find their families weren’t around / A tartan shroud was all that remained / Across their ruined houses lay / And as they came on back down from the hills / The wind behind them wailed away…”. It’s another strong effort on an album full of them.

“Heroes in Tennis Shoes” has a different feel, but one hard to properly identify. It’s got almost a pop tone to it, without actually crossing the barrier.

Then we have “Sweet Orphan,” which brings in the piano for a Billy Joel-like song with a wistful air about February. One of the best parts has to be, “And the rain, it whistles lonely on this pond / and I think it’s sad you’ve never learned to swim / now they’ve torn the old mill down / and your dress blues are on the ground / now there’s nothing left, just moss and tired trees.”

The picture it paints is suitably touching and nostalgic.

“Mother Mary” is another rock-and-roll bagpipe-and-guitar special, with the band quite cheerfully throwing themselves into something of a love song.

My favorite song, and certainly the most unusual of the album has to be the bizarre rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which is here titled “Daze of Grace.” A dozen listenings, and only then was I able to find words to describe the haunting, mysterious manner in which they take and transform the traditional melody into a storm cloud anthem. It starts off with a lone woman’s voice, backed by wind and thunder, as though she’s singing to the storm, and as the wind increases, so does the odd sound of record scratchiness. Bring in a solemn drumbeat and the bagpipes everyone expects with “Amazing Grace,” and fade out the voice for an instrumental. Now it has something of a tribal beat, the hurricane still in the background. An electric fiddle and a male voice chanting, along with the regular drumbeats, and it takes on an unearthly, alien aspect. Then it all comes together for a truly unique effect. The background chant of “Daze of Grace” whispers its way into the listener’s consciousness. It’s easy to become lost as the full choir fades in with the familiar lyrics of Amazing Grace. As I’ve said, this is my favorite song, and the one that makes Seven Nations truly stand out from every other Celtic-style band I’ve ever heard. Oddest of all, though, has to be the scratchiness in the very background of the song, as though it was recorded from an old record, or from a tape with plenty of hiss. Rather than detracting, it adds to the overall effect.

Finally, the album closes with “This Season Reprise,” which is sedate compared to some of the other offerings on this album.

I recommend The Factory with enthusiasm and confidence. It won me over with its consistent quality, divergence from the same old same old I so often find in Celtic music, and the talented promise of Seven Nations. This is a group to watch for in the future.

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