A bold, dark and deeply moving modern folk album.
Having set a high bar with his previous release, ‘Settler’, Scotland’s Malcolm MacWatt manages to surpass it on ‘Dark Harvest’, an album of sombre acoustic folk songs steeped in tradition (and occasional blood and mire). ‘Settler’ featured some starry eyed guest vocal turns (Jaimee Harris, Gretchen Peters Laura Cantrell and Eliza Carthy) and ‘Dark Harvest’ continues in a similar vein with cameos from Nathan Bell and Angeline Morrison present but these are fleeting appearances with the bulk of the songs carried by MacWatt’s instrumentation and his deep felt beliefs.
MacWatt delves into history on several of the songs, skewering past injustices with a deep sense of indignation but he also weighs against much more recent outrages, the most notable being his account of the murders of a series of native Canadian women on ‘Red River Women’ where he’s ably supported by Shannon Hynde’s vocals. It’s a song emblematic of MacWatt’s ability to bridge the oceanic gap between his Scotland and the new territories and the following song, ‘Empire In Me’, the tale of a slave girl, born in Guyana but raised in Scotland by her plantation owner father, cements this. It’s one of the highlights of the album as Angeline Morrison duets with MacWatt with the song sounding as if it were plucked from a Pentangle album. It’s quite glorious.
Throughout the album MacWatt invokes memories of players such as Dick Gaughan along with Americans such as Guthrie and Seeger. All of these had a singular voice and MacWatt proves here that he can be just as commanding as any of them. He opens the album with a strident call for independence on ‘Strong Is The North Wind’ and closes it with the supremely moving ‘Semi Scotsman’, an anthem in waiting. On the title song he hones in on the UK government’s use of a Scottish island, Gruinard, to test for warfare the deadly germ Anthrax, leaving the island uninhabitable for five decades. It was only due to the action of a group of “eco terrorists,” the Dark Harvest Commando, that the land was cleansed and MacWatt celebrates their brand of direct action, assisted by the grave voice of Nathan Bell who intones, “Here’s to the dark harvest commando, who they were only Gruinard knows. Sometimes direct action is the only way to go when dark forces rule and the powers to be ignore. And one generation’s terrorist or political prisoner is the next generation’s activist or politician. You reap what you sow.” Aside from the song’s subject matter it has a universal message, shouting out to all those activists who our current government strive to criminalise.
The album is quite panoramic as MacWatt ranges from topics such as the brutal execution of an anti monarch Scotsman on ‘Brave David Tyrie’, whaling tales on ‘She Told Me Not To Go’, the massacre on the plains described in ‘Buffalo Thunder’ and the tender ‘The Nightjar’s Fall From Grace’, all delivered with grace, power and dignity. There’s Appalachian influences and couthy Scots folk music combined on ‘Heather And Honey’ and ‘Drowsy Maggie’ is quite an astounding song, delivered in a traditional folk idiom but pertaining to the perils of running a county line drugs team. It’s a lengthy album and there are several delights we’ve not mentioned here but we have to salute his version of the old Leadbelly chestnut, ‘Out On The Western Plain’, a song MacWatt first heard via Rory Gallagher. Here it’s a sinewy blues number with snakelike guitar from Pat McManus and MacWatt manages to mention Scottish drovers in the lyrics, squaring his transatlantic circle.
Not only is ‘Dark Harvest’ a powerful listen, it has a claim to be considered an important album, addressing as it does ancient injustice and current woes. A folk album both traditional and modern.