Steve McDonald’s Sons of Somerled

SteveMcDonald_SonsOfSomerledSomerled was a 12th century Scottish lord and war leader who helped defend the land from Viking invaders. His grandson founded the largest and most powerful of the Scottish clans, Clan Donald. When New Age musician Steve McDonald of New Zealand became aware of his Scottish ancestry he began to intensively research his heritage as a member of Clan Donald; he also decided to write a concept album dedicated to the history of the Clan. Sons of Somerled is the very satisfying result.

Generally I am not a fan of New Age music, which so often begins with a grand design and rapidly deteriorates into plinky woo-woo pseudo-ethnic background noise. Sons of Somerled is not of this ilk. Though the most obvious instrument on this album is the synthesizer and some of the traditional instrument sounds are actually done with keyboards, McDonald has done a truly wonderful job of capturing the feeling of traditional Scottish music. Rather than derivative, this music is carefully crafted to be a modern version of an ancient sound.

Ten of the thirteen tracks on the CD are originals by McDonald, and three are traditionals that pertain to the story of Clan Donald. The first song and title track “Sons of Somerled” actually worried me on first listen, as it’s the closest to the often overpolished soullessness of New Age, and I actually thought I was in for 69 minutes of dreary moaning. I was gratified to find that the second and third songs, “Live On My Warrior Son” and “All You Can Know” rapidly improved and the story began to unfold. But the fourth song, the traditional “Loch Lomond,” is what really made my decision about this CD. This song refers to the Battle of Culloden and the despair of the clans who lost so much to the English in that decisive defeat. It’s a stirring, moving song about anguish and loss, yet so often it’s performed as a quiet love song. McDonald’s version begins quietly but moves into a crescendo of voices as his backup singers (Wendy McMillan, Kiersten Williams, and Nicole Leonard) join him in a plaintive and tremblingly emotional version of the glorious and sometimes underrated song. Maybe I’m easily swayed by passionate music, but I found I had a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The album just continues to improve after the amazing fourth track. I particularly enjoyed the mix of pipes, harps, and voices in “Come to the Isle of Skye,” about Flora MacDonald’s invitation to the defeated Bonny Prince Charlie to find sanctuary in the folds of the clan. And “Per Mare, Per Terra” (By Sea, By Land, a Clan Donald motto) is fantastic and uplifting. McDonald performs “Scotland the Brave” as less of an anthem than usual, and I found this soft and mostly mellow version oddly disquieting at first; but on the second listen I decided I really did like it. And MacDonald’s version of the well-known standard “Wild Mountain Thyme” is positively ambitious and far heavier on instrumentation than most versions I’ve heard. I enjoyed it.

Do pick up Sons of Somerled. It’s really a wonderful CD. This music has a soul. If, like me, you’re genetically predisposed to the sound of pipes and drums, this CD should strike the same chord that causes your heart to leap when you hear the first skreel of the pipes. If you’re an aficionado of Scottish history, all the better.

The liner notes are actually a detailed 15 page booklet including lyrics, pictures, and historical information. The CD is also enhanced, so play it on your computer and watch the interview with the artist. I highly recommend this album.

(Etherean, 1996)


Maria Nutick grew up in Central Oregon. She began questioning consensual reality at a very young age, and so her Permanent Record notes that she Did Not Apply Herself and Had Trouble Working Up To Her Full Potential. She sometimes Did Not Play Well With Others. In college, of course, she majored in Liberal Arts.

In the interest of Making Ends Meet she has done everything from baking to managing a theater. She lives in Portland, Oregon with the Furry Horde : 3 cats (Thor, Lucifer, and Moonshine), 2 dogs (Karma and Mojo), and 1 husband. She's an artsy craftsy type, and -- oh horrors -- a poet.

Her favorite writers are Holly Black, Emma Bull, Zenna Henderson, Charles De Lint, Parke Godwin, Terri Windling, Sheri S. Tepper, Will Shetterly, and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. She highly recommends, if you happen to be blue or just having a bad day, that you try listening to Silly Wizard's "The Queen of Argyll", Boiled in Lead's "Rasputin", and most importantly Tears for Beers' "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" and "Star of the County Down". It's hard to be sad while dancing with wild abandon. At least, Maria thinks so.

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