Artist: Dead Rat Orchestra
Title: Guga Hunters of Ness
Label: Critical Heights
This review also appeared over at The Liminal.
The guga hunters of the title of this documentary by Mike Day and its soundtrack by the Dead Rat Orchestra are the men of Ness, a remote community in the north part of the Isle of Lewis. For more than 400 years, every August, the men have gathered and travelled the 40 long miles by boat to the even more remote and uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, where for two long weeks they hunt the young of gannets who use the island to breed. They then prepare the meat for the homeward journey and for distribution throughout the community. There is a short window in the birds’ life during which the flesh is edible, either side of this it’s either tough and stringy, or raw, salty and unpalatable. It used to be that the meat provided the community with much needed food throughout the winter months, but now the expedition has become pure ritual and the meat is sold as a delicacy. The hunting of young gannets is outlawed everywhere else in the EU but the hunters of Ness are given special dispensation to continue their tradition. They take 2000 birds each year.
The beautifully shot and edited and ultimately non-judgemental documentary charts one of these expeditions from beginning to end. It takes in short backstories of the men involved, their coming together and planning for the trip, plus the expedition proper, with its grim, nauseating boat journey and the two weeks in stone bothies atop the greyblack gneiss outcrop that is Sula Sgeir. In many ways the early part of the film is a depiction of the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observations that in the villages of Samoa the men were at their happiest when they got together before a long hunting expedition - there is easy bonhomie, camaraderie. And yet there is an air of steely melancholy about the whole affair - an air that pervades the entire film. It’s partly due to the men knowing that what’s coming is two weeks of hardship, but there’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that the tradition is dying, and on a greater scale the traditions of the Western Isles in general - this may be the last generation of men that ventures forth into the wilds of the ocean.
There’s also a real sense that men are surrendering themselves to a greater force - not necessarily something religious in content, more letting themselves be drawn on by the plotlines of tradition, the hooks and pulleys of the past, a past that also reaches forward from the present and draws them on, the ghosts of memories and generations past operating outside of time. The faces of the men consequently take on the look of pilgrims, supplicants. In this sense, it feels as if the characters are performing a kind of cultural dreamwork. This gives the melancholy a strange tinge of fire, gives it life, and power.
As such, the Dead Rat Orchestra’s job (the trio are Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann) seems, on the surface, a fairly straightforward one - to find a way of capturing both the power of this historical work, and to trace and trap the over-arching sense of melancholy. Yet the film already has so much music - the strange bubbling calls of the gannets, like water over rough stone, the infinite voice of the sea and the beautiful roll of the Lewisian accents, plus the hidden music of the gaelic place names: the toponymic melodies - that in truth the band’s role is almost to fade into the background, to become like an instrument of the atmosphere. And to their credit, the soundtrack is wonderfully understated. It brings to mind British Sea Power’s soundtrack to Man of Aran, which was hamstrung by the band’s over-insistence on trying to match the power of the elements, and the awesome forces of the past. The Dead Rat Orchestra’s approach is more humble.
The band worked closely with the director and also researched thoroughly old Nessian folk tales and melodies, then, with a store of traditional folk instruments, they decamped to a disused lighthouse ship on a tidal estuary in Essex, where they spent a week cut off from the outside world. From the overall sound of the album, it appears the environment seeped into the music itself, alongside their store of melodies and memories, creating a kind of bubble to work inside. So what you have is a series of vignettes, beguilingly simple and largely muted, but packing a subsumed emotional punch that mirrors the often haunted looks of the men involved in the Sula Sgeir expedition.
The individual tracks are built from simple means, like creaking shore dwellings - banjo, piano, accordion, violin - and there is the occasional field recording such as on ‘Salt Slide’ where the voices of the Ness Church Choir infiltrate the atmosphere like weather and lift the track into probably the most exuberant section of the album. The centrepiece is ostensibly ‘Heather Isle’ (also the longest track at 8 minutes), a track for the trawler which has taken the men to the island for many years. It swells from a treated accordion drone into a kind of tribal stomp before settling back into a wheeze of bowed strings. Though, in truth, the real ‘centre(s)’ of the album are the two tracks named after ‘Dods' banjo’. Dods has been the leader of the expedition for a number of years and his gneiss-like stare personifies the sense of fierce melancholy that drives the men on. These tracks are the sparest here, a barely plucked banjo like a lone voice in the night.
I think, finally, the film and the soundtrack are a gentle triumph - and by remaining relatively passive and observational, the essential power of the undertaking is slowly revealed in all its historical and personal complexity. Though part of me did wonder if there was more space for dissonance, even the slightest notion of the perpetuation of what is essentially a tradition of quiet horror.
Dead Rat Orchestra - Guga Hunters of Ness
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