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THE IRON HORSE "Five Hands High" Klub Records CDLDL 1214

The press release for this album claims it is "certain to consolidate The Iron Horse's position at the forefront of the Scottish roots scene", and I think they might be right. "Five Hands High" is definitely a step forward from the previous two Iron Horse releases: the band has matured, the line-up is unchanged from the last album, and this is altogether a more professional piece of work.

This album gives a very good idea of what The Iron Horse is like, whether on stage, on disc or in a pub: lots of driving instrumental sets, plenty of virtuoso strings, good harmonies and a balanced mix of new and traditional material. If you're looking for slow, haunting pieces, forget it - this band rarely slows the pace to less than a brisk trot. However, there are several fast haunting tracks: "A' Bhean Iadaich", "The Heiress" and "Northern Cross Rising" among them.

The album is roughly evenly split between songs and instrumentals, but I was pleased that the instrumentals still took the lion's share: this is definitely where the band's greatest strengths lie, with the brilliant fiddling of Gavin Narwick and whistling of Annie Grace backed by equally accomplished strings, keyboards and percussion. Annie's piping features strongly on this album, on both highland and small pipes, and it is much improved from the last album. I felt the small pipes were a bit overdone in places, such as in "The Lowlands of Holland", but that's just my personal preference for the big pipes.

Iron Horse lost a singer and gained a drummer between the first and second albums, and the singing on the last album was, perhaps, a little shaky as a result. However, this new release has rock-solid vocals throughout, with the two female voices blending and harmonising very nicely. I did find some of the words a bit hard to make out, but the lyrics are written out in full. Contrary to my claim above, there are three slowish songs on the album, but I preferred the faster ones!

The "percussionist" has also come into his own on this album: the multitude of things being hit and shaken gives a consistent strong beat behind songs and tunes alike. The reference to the "Scottish roots scene" in the blurb is perhaps justified by the Afro-Caledonian feel of some tracks, but this is never overdone and the percussion adds welcome depth to the overall sound.

The new compositions by Rod, Lynn and Gavin give a very distinctive flavour to the album. There is plenty of new and exciting material here, and all of it played with great skill and energy. I'm already looking forward to Iron Horse's next album, whatever they decide to call it!

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 7 of The Living Tradition magazine.