Culann and The Gonzo Division have been on many epic, fantastical and incredible journeys; and I don’t just mean the live shows, the music and our first ever gig assignment… We have journeyed the South African Serengeti and the Himalayan peaks, we’ve been to ancient battlefields and post-apocalyptic futures. We’ve reviewed them several times over the years, starting with their debut album in 2012, and just about every gig they’ve played in Ayrshire or Glasgow since then. Each time we’ve come up with more and more abstract ideas for articles and unconventional approaches to music journalism. It has actually spawned some of our best pieces of writing over the years, where gonzo journalism meets creative writing meets music reviews.*
*If you want to follow that journey from its incarnation just go here and type Culann in the search bar https://ctherrongonzodivision.wordpress.com/
This time however, I don’t need to make up a fantastical story, as I’m in one, for real! You see while Culann are playing a gig to launch their new album, Will has to attend it without me, as I am in Egypt, in the sprawling, semi-derelict metropolis of Cairo, visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza! The only one of the seven wonders of the (ancient) world remaining. The Temple of Artemis and the statue of Zeus were destroyed by fire, the Mausoleum, The Colossus of Rhodes and the lighthouse at Alexandria succumbed to earthquakes; The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, if they ever even existed, were erased by war and erosion. The Egyptians however, were masters of cosmic and scientific arts and possibly the greatest architects that have ever lived! The pyramids have survived earthquakes, wars, fires, explosions and thousands and thousands of years of exposure to one of the harshest, most hostile, climates on Earth; the Sahara desert.
As I climb down, baking in the oppressive 38 degree heat, from the second step of the Pyramid of Khufu, I note once more before I leave, the breathtaking size of each block of limestone the structure consists of; 2.3 million blocks, some the size of small vans, weighing a couple of hundred tons, no two blocks the same, yet all fitted together, without cement, to within a hundredth of a degree of accuracy, you can’t even fit a Rizla between the gaps – it’s just showing off. These Egyptian engineers and architects could put an edge on a rolling pin!
The pyramid is said to date back to 2 or 3,000BC but recent evidence of the water erosion markings on the Sphinx, may date it back as far as 10,000BC maybe even earlier! (See Robert Schoch, John Anthony West, Robert Bauvall, Graham Hancock etc.). There is even evidence that the Egyptians just claimed the structures as their own, sticking an Egyptian head on the Sphinx and some hieroglyphs on the pyramids and taking the credit, and that the constructions may belong to an even earlier advanced civilisation. The proof and evidence is ubiquitous if you look for it. But it’s a deep rabbit hole and you’ll need a sturdy shovel and a packed lunch…
As I lay my hand on one of the smooth blocks, cold to the touch, despite the desert sun, you can almost feel the age resonating off them and a sort of powerful energy flowing through them. As the centuries boil in the air around us, I think how great the human minds were which built these monuments, with technologies unknown to us, laser-precision, building up with ease and accuracy what we still can’t do today with all our new-fangled machinery and so-called superior intelligence!
I’m basking in the radiant glow of the pyramids, skin scalding, the smell of sand, dust and ancient stone floating on hot zephyrs, when my phone grumbles, and I obey it to find an email from PJ Kelly with the new Culann album attached! ‘Good stuff!’ The busdriver is calling us back anyway, and it’s a seven hour journey from Cairo, the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life with a population of over 25 million, to our hotel at Hurghada, where I can listen to and review comfortably Culann’s new album.
The journey back from Cairo had been an arduous one, wrought with military checkpoints, African wasps and the Saharan heat. Now I’m poolside at the Aqua Hotel Hurghada, azure shimmering water, radiant sunshine; a midget in a white tuxedo just brought me a drink, the kind of drink that is suspiciously-coloured and unnecessarily covered with foliage but that goes down really easily. All the holidaying Arabs have had their lunch and slunk off to wherever it is they go after lunch, is there an Arabic word for siesta? There is, it’s ‘qylula’. So it’s quiet round the pool and I fire up my Bluetooth speaker, and let the hot Egyptian air have it with a cool, refreshing blast of new material from the boys from Erewyn, Culann!
The mighty ship Ecumene sets sail and launches to an ascending psychedelic intro and into that valiant Culann sound that is now comfortingly familiar to me, like a favourite whiskey, or a warm coalfire. The sturdy vessel, illimitable in its glory, following a strong and wintry westerly wind, carves a path through choppy green waves with the sweep of many oars, sending us towards a pale pink dusk. High rocky bluffs, crowned with scraggly trees, dwindle into the distance, and we are adrift on the open sea, in search of Evonium, and The Stone of Scone, an ancient stone ‘pon which many ancient British kings have been crowned.
*Arabic for ‘up the banner’.
The album is a rip-roaring rock opera, I’ve often called Culann prog-celtic-rock, and they are very layered in the structure of their songs, with great skill they carry a tune through many progressions, bridges and changes etc. Evonium evolves like a writhing sea serpent cutting out of the waves. It really gets going with the thunderous, erratic cocaine-heartbeat at;
“Standing taller than I’ve ever been, the earth below me saw a mighty scene, kings and kinsmen screaming in my dreams…”
Telling tales and drinking from grails, traversing vales and setting sails, the good ship Ecumene never fails; the imagery conjured up by Culann’s music and lyrics flashes through your head in a kaleidoscope of visions, like you’ve just done peyote under the branches of some ancient Scottish yew tree, and its memories and experiences of the last three thousand years are infiltrating your brain and flashing through your mind’s eye in an unstoppable hurricane of psychedelic apparitions, visualisations and images! Kings, queens, warriors, druids and soothsayers… The vortex of the visual/audio tornado is the balls-out rocking guitar solo two and a half minutes in. The song is taking us on a long, incredible adventure, if you listen closely… And try not to have an aneurysm rocking-out from the intense, potent deliverance of it…
A Pink Floydesque outro as Ecumene sails through thick, clinging mists which crawl fingering across icy waters… And out of the chilly calm and into the turbulence of the stormy seas that is ‘Event Without Experience’. Incredible vocal and perfect harmonies as always, nice use of a flute or something and the outro turns into an all-out punk rock assault that is a thing of beauty!
We brew the ale next and let it simmer, with a jangled, erratic, folky offering that develops into the soaring wings of an eagle, and then swoops low across fields of green and hills of brown. Crescendoing into a good Scottish folk-punk tune. Century Box, and each chord and note played is a precious grain of sand falling through the hourglass, but with enough high-octane energy to incite a surging moshpit!
The title track has a brilliant, swelling, gushing melody to it, as the good ship Ecumene conquers a deluge of Atlantian proportions! We’re approaching the brink, the swirling, cascading waterfalls at the Edge of the World, and soon a rising, spine-tingling melody sets us up, bracing for impact. Impact comes with a glorious explosion of bass, guitar, drums, haunting vocal harmonies and keyboard, the tearing of sailcloth, the shattering of timber, all aswirl, the stars of the constellations in the skies becoming streaks and melting into a swirling vortex as we succumb to the maelstrom of the whirlpool we have stumbled into! The good ship Ecumene vanishes below the waves; Davey Jones’ Locker beckons…
Bubbling blackness, bible-black, all-encompassing darkness surrounds, nothing but the sound of gurgling and the sonic boom wood makes when smashing underwater. Water penetrates everything, an even pitcher black beckons… Down… Into the abyss.
We wake from all reverie to sun beating down on our salty face, we’re clinging to driftwood, alive and afloat on a calm sea, gulls circle overhead, land must be near, you can almost smell the earth on the seabreeze, taste the sand on the oceanic air. All Reverie is a dramatic, epic opus which I have enjoyed live already once or twice, captured now on record for repeated plays. That true and unique Culann sound. Clinging to a broken mast, in an ocean of majestic music.
Sharks circle menacingly beneath our feet as we tread water, but make no quarrel; the current is taking us to land, to the sweet, dry soil of Evonium, home. The bleak skeletons of many sunken ships lie entombed in coral and seaweed in watery graves in these parts, noble Ecumene among them now, but we are alive, alive and free. The music now tells of tragedy, with hope’s light shining through and illuminating the way, as the crimson sun dips below the horizon to the sound of dual guitars. The music is our shield, our aegis, and it is nothing short of a punk anthem, with brilliant shredding guitar and a chaotic overture to the Celtic, Norse and Roman gods of yore.
There’s a deeply-infused melancholic beauty, barely discernable, but pulsing away beneath all of the music of Culann, an alluring mysterious hint of hidden meanings and guarded emotions, shadows clinging to the feet of the lyrics…
Jazz-infused insane funk lets us know we’re still alive. The poke of a stick to the body on the beach. A brilliant wee psychedelic overture plays this track out seamlessly into a soaring guitar solo, musical mastership, shipmaster’s music, followed by a final grasp for shore. Man Overboard is now a Man Alive.
And we’ve made it, dry land, Glasgow Queen Street Station, the traffic roars and belches its acrid fumes, scruffy pigeons squabble and scramble and scatter, and the homeless line the pavements, shoulder to shoulder with the hurrying commuters. Back from Egypt, back from Ecumene, back from The Brink. The music is now a distant dream, like a distant shoreline, like another lifetime ago. Except for one more song, which strums up and plays out the latest chapter; a wistful, mournful, rootsy-Scottish ditty, wailing and weeping and wayment, it is wuthering the woes of the wayward.
Always a pleasure Culann, another fantastic album that was well worth the wait, and hopefully too, the work, you put in. One of the best Scottish albums this year, without a doubt. And the live show takes it to a whole ‘nother level! And with that in mind, I’ll seeya’ in the pit, walking the plank!
Culann are: PJ Kelly, Sean Kelly, Greg Irish, Ross McCluskie and Calum Davis.
You can buy their spectacular new album here:
C. T. Herron (NHC Gonzo Div.)
Photos by Vilhelm Gonztone