Released: November 18, 2022
Ten years on - musical shape shifter Vass revisits his classic Scottish winter album “Occasionally a musician comes along and surprises us by delivering the unexpected” – Northern Sky
Mike Vass has always been one to make a scene. In the best possible way. The brilliant Scottish tunesmith has long had an inherent ability to paint pictures in compositions, evoke images from melodies and transport listeners to another place entirely. A spectacular Scottish winter comes to life in his ambitious upcoming release Decemberwell Decade.
Hugely atmospheric it takes listeners on a journey through one of the coldest months of the year whilst wrapping it in a festive warmth, light and hope. A master of eloquent compositions and named Composer of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards, the innovative Nairn-born Vass is rightly recognised as one of the most creative forces on the Scottish music scene. A musician never far from a new commission, he has built his enviable reputation on his skills not just as a composer but also an in-demand producer and multi-instrumentalist known for his signature fiddle and tenor guitar playing which saw him nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Scots Trad Music Awards.
Traditional Artist in Residence at Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies for the past three years and the first Associate Artist In Traditional Music at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Mike surprised everyone in 2018 when he changed tack, releasing his first ever album of self-penned songs, and revealed a fine voice into the bargain. Save His Calm was probably not what followers of Vass’s music had expected following on from three beautifully crafted instrumental albums - Decemberwell, In the Wake of Neil Gunn (nominated for 2014’s Scottish Album of the Year) and Notes from the Boat and the lockdown EP Man Alone with Himself. The first of these, Decemberwell (2011) saw Mike flying solo, layering a wealth of multi instrumental magic - composing, producing, performing and recording in a one-man tour de force while hunkered down in his home studio in Glasgow.
The story starts a year earlier when he was working as a peripatetic fiddle tutor for Argyll and Bute Council travelling around schools. That year’s harsh winter meant all his December teaching work was cancelled at short notice due to the volume of snow on the roads. So he hibernated in his Glasgow flat with only a collection of box sets for company! In 2011 the council decided to modify the end of year teaching timetable, anticipating similar weather conditions. Says Mike: “Rather than rewatch the same box sets I set myself a challenge - to spend December writing and recording some Scottish winter-themed music and record a daily video diary of the whole process.” Switching between fiddles, cittern, mandolin, percussion and an old upright piano bought especially for the project, Mike wrote and played every part on the album.
The official release of Decemberwell in 2012 saw Mike marked as ‘one to watch’ and he won the coveted title of Composer of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards the same year. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of one of the most significant releases in his back catalogue, Mike decided to give it a reincarnation.
Throughout December 2021 he created a totally new body of winter-inspired work from his current Highland base in Ullapool on the northwest tip of the Scottish mainland. But this time he turned the concept on its head – whereas he had played every note on the original Decemberwell, this time he decided he would produce the work but not play at all. Instead he invited ten guest musicians into the studio to interpret and perform his work. The result is the singular Decemberwell Decade, a folk-trad-jazz-classical fusion dripping with visual imagery.
The gifted virtuoso Philip Cardwell takes a starring role on trumpet alongside David Foley (Rura) on flute, Donald Grant on violin, Louis Abbot (drums) Sorren MacLean (guitars), Signy Jakobsdottir(percussion) , Joseph Peach (piano and accordion) , Emma Smith (double bass) and two stand out Gaelic songstresses Kathleen MacInnes and Mairi MacLennan who sing traditional songs that punctuate the otherwise instrumental work. Recorded by Vass at Gloworm Studios in Glasgow, where it was mixed by Iain Hutchison, it’s a superb sonic depictment of December. It’s an arresting, mesmerising and immersive work, with repeated hooks and phrases, conjuring up so many winter images - frost and ice, candles, soft falling snow, sleigh rides, exultant bells and brass bands as the music spins towards Christmas.
The 10 track release opens with Cardwell leading the way on trumpet – from a soporific start, it builds with drums and percussion into a triumphant overture. The percussive, syncopated Prisms on the Dark Sea surges hypnotically into Getting Colder where Peach’s piano outlines a tentative, temperature-dropping journey deeper into December, Caldwell’s trumpet almost shivering with anticipation as the mercury drops. Maclean’s guitar ripples through the stand-out Suspension in the Air where you can almost see your breath, hear snow squeak underfoot, frost crunch and ice crack in the hypnotic and urgent riffs - before Mairi MacLennan changes the pace and delivers her take on the beautiful Siud Ma Chuir Mi N Geamhrash Tharam (That’s How I Spent The Winter). Levity edges towards Christmas cheer, Cardwell’s glorious trumpet reminiscent of feel-good festive brass bands, alternating with the tinkling percussion of Jakobsdottir.
Still Below the Hills blends trumpet and strings into a delicious dreamy mix before the shifting tempos and grandeur of The Great Well and the happy all-hands-on-deck final tune Even the Stars Sleep with its exultant air of anticipation and joy, bringing the work to the brink of Christmas and a fabulous festive finale, Caldwell’s trumpet fading away with Peach’s keys with the end of the year.
Kathleen MacInnes brings the album to a sublime end with a pitch perfect rendition of Ciuin an oidhch (Silent Night).
With colourful festive artwork from Anna Colliton, the album booklet also includes the text to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Winter-Time.
Once again Vass has proved himelf a master innovator. In just over 36 minutes he has conjured a cinematic, sensory experience that can reflect whatever you want it to. It’s an album poised, just waiting to melt into another December….
Decemberwell Decade is released on November 18 on the Unroofed Records label.