Album Review / Project Smok: Bayview

Even out here in Finland, I noticed the first single and EP releases from the mysteriously titled band a couple of years ago. The playing was sharp and impressive and the material was very much ok so I earmarked them for further monitoring.

And now things seem to be really moving in Smokland. Me and my wife recently had the great pleasure of being in the audience at the BBC Scotland Young Trad Musician final where Ali Levack, Project Smok’s stunning flautist/piper/whistler, grabbed the title. His performance was quite dazzling and demonstrated a great versatility, from trad piping to gentle playing to Jethro Tull-ish ferocity at the flute.

So, with the release of the first Smok album my expectations were running high. Were they met? You betcha. With the combination of Ali, Pablo Lafuente on guitars, Ewan Baird on the bòdhran and top notch guests too many to mention AND Mike Vass producing, there’s zero possibility of Bayview being a nosedive.

Do I have anything critical to say about this album before I start throwing roses and confetti at the musicians? Not too much, no. If forced at gunpoint, I might note that the album does not really stretch any boundaries or present groundbreaking innovations as far as style is concerned. Bayview stays very strongly in the sphere of modern Scottish folk, with Gnoss and Ross Ainslie the first references that come to my mind. If you dig those – and why wouldn’t you? – you’ll love Bayview.

The tunes form a pretty cohesive whole for the duration of the album, and I have noticed I’m listening more to the album than paying attention to individual tracks; I have played Bayview a zillion times and still the only tracks I can immediately mention are Ceithid’s (because it has vocals) and Headlifter (because it journeys, almost prog rock style, through various colours and landscapes before arriving at a joyous folk-headbanging finale).

Is the unity of the album an issue? Nah, I don’t think so – it’s rather a proof that there are no weak links on it and it all comes together as a great listening experience. My wife says Bayview is a mood; when it’s playing, it just kind of takes you to a place. And that’s a great achievement in itself, of course.

More roses are thrown to all the players involved; it’s just such a pleasure to hear excellent playing, no matter what the style of music is. And because of the lovely sound engineering – I read this is done on analogue equipment – the music comes close to your skin and lives in the air around you. What’s critical is that neither Ali Levack nor anyone else is trying to steal the show; this is an ensemble effort even if Ali is reservedly in the spotlight.

In this otherwise horrible year, the music on Bayview can be a lifesaver. This spring, I have walked and bicycled around my silent and pandemic-empty Finnish hometown with Bayview playing in my headphones. It’s given me confidence that one day, we can all really breathe again.

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