The Scottish band creating music through stories, sagas - and birthdays
Gnoss have always been a band with a plan – a plan that has seen them quickly escalate into the upper echelons of Scottish folk music, a plan that not even lockdown could throw off course.
Being Triple Scots Trad Awards nominees is quite something when you are still a foursome of twenty somethings. But with myriad musical skills fine-tuned at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, their impact has been swift, sure and well-deserved.
Formed in Scotland’s northern isles by Orcadians Aidan Moodie (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Graham Rorie (fiddle, mandolin, electric tenor guitar) in 2015, the duo quickly raised the stakes by morphing into a four-piece with the addition of Perthshire’s Connor Sinclair on flute and whistles and Clackmannanshire’s Craig Baxter on bodhrán and percussion.
On their new album, Stretching Skyward, their signature sound is a rich tapestry of acoustic layers and textures, mixing outstanding musicianship with captivating original songs conjured and led by the arresting voice of Aidan Moodie.
First and foremost, their material salutes the Scottish tradition and Orkney’s rich history with native passion but increasingly they are moving out of their comfort zone into something more contemporary and boundary-nudging.
Gnoss’s debut album Drawn from Deep Water was nominated for 2019 Album of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards while their acclaimed second album, The Light of the Moon, released in May 2021 was their first recording of all-original material. It was nominated for Album of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2021.
“We released our last album in a hopeful Spring and toured it when the country was waking up after lockdown,” says Aidan Moodie.
“That tour really opened our eyes as to how much all our lives had changed since 2020. It felt very much like change itself was the only real constant; the one thing we could depend on.”
This gave the band the hook for Stretching Skyward which evolved as something of a concept album, inspired by historical Scottish tales, abandonment of ways of life, new beginnings and the passage of time.
“Each track is centred around a story which has change at its heart,” says Aidan.
“Those stories gave us pause to look at the change that’s taken place in our own lives over the past few years.
“We wanted to reflect this idea within the sounds we used to construct the album; introducing more electronic elements, like synths, samples, and other instruments, as well as exploring some production techniques that weren’t rooted in folk music. It was a lot of fun to piece together.”
The 11-track album comprises a rich mix of six tunes and five songs (four originals penned by Moodie and one cover).
Kicking off the album is the breath-taking Stroma, written by Sinclair. which starts as a whistle-led, percussive tune. It’s not long before all four musicians are on the case as it buzzes, stomps and crashes into a peppy, full-blooded, multi-layered opener – and yes, we’re all awake now!
It’s inspired by an abandoned island off the coast of Caithness where it is said that prayer books still lie open in the church pulpit, a bottle of ink dries in the Post Office window and family photos line croft walls.
It is referenced in The Orkneyinga Saga, a narrative of the history of the Orkney and Shetland islands and this saga also influences the first song on the album – Hamnavoe which recalls the fact that Orkney was once ruled over by Norwegian Jarls who sailed huge Viking longships on epic expeditions.(Hamnavoe is Old Norse for ‘safe harbour’ and the ancient Viking name for the Orkney town Stromness).
Gnoss continue their tradition of writing songs to mark family birthdays and the first of these is the mellow Christine’s written by Connor for his aunt’s 60th birthday and further into the album is the dreamy, wistful fiddle-led tune Audrey’s, a tune Rorie gifted to his niece on her first birthday.
Perhaps the most impactful song on the album is Moodie’s Honey Wine –a song which recognises the Scottish travelling people known as the Nawken whose roots go back to the 9th century.
The soundscape is big and Moodie’s lyrics invoke visual imagery as they contrast the simple life of the traveller with the prejudice and abuse some have experienced.
Sinclair’s The Drovers is a tune about travellers of another kind – the people who once used to drive 30,000 black cattle to the October market in Crieff (where Sinclair grew up), some travelling over 200 miles. When the cattle boom ended, many of the drovers moved to the New World, becoming forefathers of cowboys in the Wild West.
It’s an intricate tune which veers from simple flute and fiddle lines to an all- hands-on-deck musical tapestry with driving momentum.
The cattle theme continues in Rorie’s tune Keefa Hill, named after the now deserted isle of Swona in the Pentland Firth, which lies close to South Ronaldsay where he grew up.
Populated from 500BC until the 1970s it is the only place in Britain where a herd of beef cattle has lived wild and isolated from humans for some 40 years, since being left there by the last retreating inhabitants.
It’s an infectious, stand-out tune with pacy ducking and diving fiddle leading the way and drifting into a percussive, distant other worldly soundscape before rejoining the uptempo fiddle trail.
Moodie’s impressive songwriting has also produced the atmospheric God’s Land which recalls The Covenanters – Scottish Christians who rose up against Charles II to oppose religious reform, some of whom were sold into slavery.
In 1679 some 250 of them were put on the ship Crown of London in Leith, for transportation to English plantations in America.
The ship’s first port of call was Orkney, where gales drove the vessel on to rocks – while the captain and crew were able to escape, the prisoners were confined to the hold within battened down hatches.
Laced with electric guitar, it’s an affecting song with a catchy refrain and you can almost hear the creaking ship as she sinks to the depths.
The final tune on the album is Rorie’s riotous reel Vore Tullye. The Vore Tullye, is a mythical March battle between two primal nature deities described in the folklore of the Northern Isles.
The penultimate track on the album is the fourth song, Dirt and Bone, inspired by the photography of Mike Brodie who spent four years hopping on and off freight trains across America shooting Polaroid in 47 states.
His life in motion earned him the moniker The Polaroid Kid. The upbeat chugging melody speaks of freedom and adventure, but there’s a wistfulness and longing in the lyrics.
The album is an invigorating release that sees the Gnoss story continuing its upward trajectory and edging ever closer to crossover territory - shifting and re-shaping and always, like the album title, Stretching Skyward.