Treacherous Orchestra and the innovative legacy of Martyn Bennett

(Note: if you don’t read beyond this point, here’s a little tip. Buy their albums. BUY ALL THEIR BLOODY ALBUMS.)

As somebody who has repeatedly urged friends, loved ones, and any passers-by in the street to check them out – and especially to catch their absurdly rollicking live shows – it was an absolute pleasure to hear that Treacherous Orchestra won Best Album at the weekend’s Scot Trad Music Awards.

It also felt fitting that at the same ceremony the memory of Martyn Bennett loomed large, with GRIT: Celtic Connections Opening Concert – which saw a string-laden staging of the late Scottish multi-instrumentalist’s final album – named Event of the Year.

As a young piper (and a substantially more mediocre multi-instrumentalist), Bennett was a pivotal influence on me when his second album Bothy Culture came out in the late 90s. It seared itself into the synapses of those who cottoned onto it soon after its release, thanks in no small part to its utterly unique fusion of traditional Scottish instrumention, eclectic samples and throbbing dance-influence electronics.

It’s fair to say that I was a fan.

Bothy Culture was on constant rotation as I moved away from the Highlands of Scotland to begin my studies in Aberdeen (also of Scotland), and his first show I saw there at the Lemon Tree surpassed all expectations, being a joyous, breathtaking, life-enrichening experience.

As somebody who had become a bit ashamed of the bagpipes, and who had turned his back on “traditional” Scottish music (whatever on earth that is supposed to encompass), it was spellbinding to witness someone embrace something that had felt antiquated and literally breathe new life into it, his energy infectious and emboldening.

It was for that reason that his death in 2005 at the age of 33 is truly gutting, even now. Though Bennett certainly didn’t pass away unnoticed, for my liking far too few people in Scotland knew of him, nevermind elsewhere. Grit was something special and had a great home – released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records in 2003 – but it deserved to be so much more than a hidden gem.

And more than that, who could carry on his legacy? I didn’t know of anyone, and perhaps that led to me becoming less and less acquainted with the Scottish trad scene over the next few years – something that continued until I started covering Celtic Connections while working with STV, and happened upon the Treacherous Orchestra.

Even back in 2005 I realised that it would have been false for someone to pick up the baton from exactly where Bennett had left it. The hope was that others would assume that same audacious spirit of warmly embracing the past, present and future of Scottish music, paying tribute to those who had come before but being unafraid to press on into weird and potentially wonderful new territories.

And so they have. Perhaps I was just a little impatient. (Actually, I almost certainly was.) The Treacherous Orchestra are just the sort of thing that I hoped would emerge, even if I hadn’t realised it at the time. They’re big, brash, talented, and full of surprises and sly turns. As well as creating a party atmosphere to rival the best shows of Gogol Bordello, they sneak in influences from wherever they so fancy – such as on Grind’s slowly building opening track The Long Count, a lush and beautifully arranged stomping epic which seems to have a nod to Mogwai nestled into its opening section.*

I’m not sure whether it’s my move away from Scotland a couple of years ago, the track’s swelling, delicate melody, the memories of Bennett that it resurrects, or the fact that I’m an unashamed big Jessie, but every time I hear The Long Count it brings me close to tears. (Sometimes more than that, depending on the amount of whisky that I’ve drank.)

It reminds me that some things are lost, and won’t come back, but out of distress and heartache can grow the most wonderful legacies – often not quite what you would expect, though it would probably be quite dreary if that were the case. In just the most recent couple of years we’ve seen award-winning plays and concerts about Bennett, and his standout track Blackbird had reached an audience of some 40 million on YouTube thanks to stunning short film The Ridge, which features fellow Scot Danny Macaskill.

At this point I feel like I should be reaching some sort of prophetic conclusion, but to be honest it’s just pretty fucking brilliant. Sometimes the good will out, whether that be a great musician getting the credit he deserves or a fantastic group receiving some much-deserved recognition, and even if we’re not all standing with our wee bicycle on the top of a scarily tall rock – a la Macaskill – then occasionally we’ll be able to look around ourselves and see something beautiful happening.

Anyway, enough of that. Find yourself somebody to hold onto and have a listen to this:

Then have a dance:

Then go bloody mental:

And finally, hold onto somebody else again:

(I’d recommend repeating this routine a few times a week. It’ll play havoc with your emotions, but still be well worth it.)


* Also, Treacherous Orchestra founding member Ross Ainslie won composer of the year for his work on the GRIT concert, which ties together things neater than I ever possibly could.