AMN Reviews: Dead Rat Orchestra – The Guga Hunters of Ness (Critical Heights)

The gannet is an endangered seabird known for its spectacular skydives into the shoals after its prey. The gannet, known locally as the “guga”, has also been a favoured dish of the residents of the Isle of Lewis since at least the mid-sixteenth century, and the community is the last one permitted to hunt the birds by decree of the European Union. Each year, ten men set far out into the north Atlantic to reach the island of Sula Sgeir, spending two weeks catching and processing their quota of two thousands birds with nothing for shelter but the ruins of a monastery abandoned in the eleventh century.

The Outer Hebredian himself is an endangered species. The population of Ness, poised on the northern tip of Lewis, is down to fewer than one thousand Gaelic-speakers hewing to a traditional crofter´s lifestyle that no longer survives on the Scottish mainland. In documenting the hunt for the BBC, Mike Day ended up with a film almost free of dialogue, which calls to mind a famous (if semi-fictional) predecessor filmed in a similarly craggy environment off the coast of Ireland, “Man of Aran” (1934). He enlisted the Dead Rat Orchestra to record the film´s soundtrack.

The band consists of Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Robin Mann and has rubbed bows with the likes of David Tibet and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The trio delved deep into the archives for a traditional template for their original score, played on violins, loosely-strung acoustic guitars and harmonium. Unmistakeably Celtic, not “out” but definitely not obediently folkloric, “The Guga Hunters of Ness” is evocative and intimate, an almost necessary contrast to the barren, exposed rock upon which the Nessmen perch. Even “The Heathered Isle”, with an extended ambient intro, eventually assumes comforting, relatable form. The film itself crosses elegantly over onto the record as the Ness Church Choir´s psalm-singing drifts into the Orchestra´s tiptoeing “Saltside”.

While sober and hard-set, this is more cèilideh than wake. Though noted for their unconventional take on folk music, the only eccentricity here is the fact that the group chose to record “The Guga Hunters of Ness” on a decommissioned light house ship anchored in a tidal river near Essex.

Handsomely designed package with brief essays and stark black-and-white stills.

Stephen Fruitman