Album Title: Traverse The Bealach
Label: Avantgarde Music
Date of Release: 19 January 2024
If you’ve ever wondered what the soundtrack might be like to accompany “a nomadic traveller in post-apocalyptic Scotland, trying to figure out his fate and facing the elements while travelling north, battling inner demons along the way”, then wonder no longer, for this is it. For that’s the concept behind ‘Traverse The Bealach’ the sophomore album from Sgàile.
As it turns out, Sgàile is a one-man project at the hands of Tony Dunn of Falloch, Saor, and Cnoc An Tursa fame. Dunn handles all of the lyrical content, the vocals, and the instrumentation here and it’s really hard to not be thoroughly impressed as it happens. I’d seen a lot of chatter about the album on social media and based on the voices contained within those conversations, I had no alternative but to give the album a try for myself.
I must admit that, initially, the sixty-three-minute run-time spread over just seven songs had me immediately on the back foot. Not that I have a short attention span, because I can happily watch a five-day cricket Test Match rapt from beginning to end, even if it ends in a draw. But, when it comes to music, I tend to think that somewhere between the forty to fifty-minute mark is the sweet spot because, any longer than that and you risk losing the casual listener and can begin to overstay your welcome. But, whilst there’s an argument to suggest a few editing tweaks here and there might not have gone amiss to bring this album under the hour mark, it’s hard to protest too much, especially when the record in question seeks to tell the tale of a nomadic traveller on an arduous and epic journey.
On a first spin through, I did like the music, but I wasn’t blown away by it either. As it turns out, though, ‘Traverse The Bealach’ is one of those records that just gets better and better with time and attention. It means that what started out as a reasonably positive experience has blossomed into something so much more potent than that.
It’s hard to articulate, but what I really like about this record is the way that it feels so smooth and effortless, despite being unquestionably heavy metal, with tendrils dipped into the realms of black, folk, power, and progressive metal alike. It doesn’t share many really overt similarities when assessed correctly, but as I listen, I do get a slight Lost Horizon vibe to some of the music, which I cannot seem to shake whatever I do to try. The vocals of Dunn might have a little to do with it, as they are do recall Daniel Heiman at times, albeit without the higher-pitched wails of the Swede. It might also have something to do with the swathes of atmospheric synths that bathe the compositions too. At times, you genuinely feel as if you are standing alongside the protagonist, atop one of the many mountains in Scotland surveying the scene below. Having listened to a number of albums lately that feel oppressive, suffocating, and uncomfortable (in a good way) it is nice to be faced with an album that does the exact opposite. It feels fresh, and liberating.
Despite the occasional fleeting references, Sgàile most definitely benefits from an identity all of its own, a facet that becomes clearer the more you listen and immerse yourself in the aural soundscapes and vistas on offer. It’s really clever, too, how Dunn manages to make the music unmistakeably Scottish sounding without resorting to clichéd gimmicks. There are no bagpipes or suchlike to be heard and yet the music feels like it could have come from nowhere else. Take the opener, ‘Psalms To Shout At The Void’ as the perfect illustration of what I’m driving at.
At over eleven minutes in length, it takes time to build gently, those synths laying down an atmospheric foundation upon which gentle guitars create a lovely, gentle melody. But when the drums and bass enter the fray, there’s a definite Celtic feel to the music, a feel that only increases when the lead guitar lines build upon the intro, and then kick the song into full flow. From there, the song weaves deftly from idea to idea, ebbing and flowing from heavily distorted riffs drenched in keys to more whimsical climes led by clean guitars for the most part. I love the vocal melodies, the layering of voices, and the sheer catchiness of the whole thing. Genuinely, it feels like the song is half the length that it is due to the way it twists and turns, offering delight and enjoyment at each juncture. Yes, it was a bit of an initial slow burn, but now that it has clicked, it’s just masterful, it really is.
If the opener took time to build, the opposite is true of ‘Lamentations By The Lochan’, as it bursts from the speakers led by a riff that’s heavier than most found anywhere in its predecessor. It’s also faster and more aggressive but again, not in a way that means it feels impenetrable. Instead, the song feels more energetic, and forceful; it literally skips along with effusive energy rather than sounding angry or antagonistic. More arresting vocal lines give it that catchiness early on, but my favourite aspect is the ferocious drumming and fast-paced riffs that then segue perfectly into galloping rhythms that make it impossible not to nod your head as you listen.
If I had to pick a favourite composition currently, I’d have to plump for ‘The Ptarmigan’s Cry’ as it was the one that clicked first and acted as the song to change my whole opinion of ‘Traverse The Bealach’. The opening has a properly epic quality, conjuring up an image of our protagonist standing atop a cliff, challenging the wilderness around him to do battle. The shift into a quiet, more contemplative section is wonderful, especially as the vocal melodies are mesmerising against the more minimal backdrop. It could (and have) literally listen to this section on repeat over and over again, such is my pure enjoyment of it. Things remain magical as the pace and heaviness intensifies but the melodic intent still hammers at my heart. I’m not sure that the words ‘anthemic’ and ‘majestic’ are out of place here at all, especially when we’re treated to a sumptuously melodic lead guitar solo for good measure. Once again a song that nudges double figures passes by in the blink of an eye, but what a wonderfully intoxicating blink it is.
I hear a vague hint of Amon Amarth of all bands in the opening riff that signals, rather ironically, the arrival of the song entitled ‘Silence’, a meatier, heavier composition all round without ever sacrificing the atmosphere or melody that so typifies Dunn’s chosen path on this record. In fact, in the latter stages of the song, there’s a really inspired injection of guitar-led melody that really catches my ear and plants a smile on my face. By contrast, ‘The Broken Spectre’ is a darker, moodier affair, but no less enjoyable for it. And then, to mix things up nicely, closer ‘Entangled In The Light’ is surprisingly upbeat. It is the perfect ending to the album, especially with its glorious layered guitar harmonies and moments of galloping exuberance that harken back to the heyday of NWOBHM whilst remaining absolutely true to the overall sound and direction plundered throughout this album.
I’m so glad that I, for once, followed the crowd and decided to check out ‘Traverse The Bealach’. The chatter was not wrong, as Tony Dunn under the guise of Sgàile has crafted a thing of real beauty here. Pulling in influences from all over the metal spectrum, the music is powerful, expertly crafted, and beguilingly beautiful. Do not miss this, whatever you do.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%