Master piper Eric Rigler and his virtuosic bandmates probably get a kick out of folks who can’t put a label on their music. Call it rock, jazz, Latin, pop, Celtic? How about world music? Labels aside, it’s infectious rhythms, brilliant instrumentals, superb songwriting, hummable melodies, delicious vocals and an unrelenting good time.
"Wine Dark Sea," the fourth disc from this LA-based quintet, inches Bad Haggis ever closer to the world music camp and farther away from traditional Celtic and Celtic rock. Its 11 tracks, a year and a half in the making, have their edgy, dreamy, insightful and hard-driving moments, but even these are good-natured and good-humored. This "Wine Dark Sea" runs deep technically, but it floats a party cruise.
Bad Haggis is a different band today from the one that recorded "Ark" in 2000 and "Trip" in 2001 although three founders are the same. "World’s most recorded piper" Rigler brings traditional pipes and whistles to the edge of innovation. Bassist Mick Linden writes much of the band’s material, sings a fair bit of it and underscores everything with hugely creative playing. Lead guitarist Mike Hoffmann swings amplified or acoustic and "in his life never played a bad solo," asserts one longtime observer.
Water imagery remains a theme. The group’s award-nominated 2004 DVD "Span," with contributions from salsa king Rubén Blades and then-new percussionist Alberto Lopez, hinted at the Latin-Afro rhythmic underpinnings the band embraces now. Shortly after "Span," Brazilian drummer/vocalist Rogerio Jardim climbed on board, Irish fiddler Kathleen Keane disembarked and Bad Haggis was - different.
Bad Haggis and "Wine Dark Sea" offer an alphabet soup of instruments (quarkaba, shelkere and bata are some), Scottish and Irish bagpipes, whistles, drums, various bass guitars, acoustic and amplified lead guitars, programmed sounds, special effects and multi-layered vocals in English, Portuguese and Spanish. Everybody’s a songwriter, too.
You wouldn’t expect such disparate elements to blend, but they do. What could be a sonic train wreck in another band’s hands is a playful joyride from Bad Haggis. That’s because every band member is a superb musician and in-demand studio player who’s at the top of his game.
Here’s a track-by-track look:Sleepy Maggie. The opening song rocks in a Celtic way as only Bad Haggis can do. Rigler wraps three traditional pipe tunes ("In and Out the Harbour," "Sleepy Maggie" and "Humours of Tulla") around Robert Smyth and The Cure’s 1980’s hit "Hot! Hot! Hot!!!." Awesome riffs from Hoffmann. Vocalist Linden is "dancing, screamin’, itchin,’ squealin,’ fevered, feelin’ " from start to finish. Listen for a trademark Bad Haggis joke here - Linden scats and the whole band follows. Ventania (Gale Wind). Jardim delivers the text in Portuguese, creating two- and three-part harmony for a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young effect. Like many storms it starts out as a breezy whisper, then intensifies. More great guitar work by co-author Hoffmann. Nimble Attitude. This one starts and ends with characteristic Bad Haggis humor -- screeching brakes, then the metal-and-glass crunch of a rear-ender. Linden delivers his take on LA’s ferocious traffic, but it’s not a serious accident, it’s all about the rhythm of the road. Horizon. Rigler’s pipe theme sounds vaguely Middle Eastern, but this tune turns into a solid rocker about love and surfing. Or is it love of surfing? More three-part vocals from Jardim. Love Carry Water. Perhaps the most commercial-sounding track on the album with Mick Linden’s top-40 melody and effective poetry ("Still my favorite sound is when you call my name"). Hoffmann is acoustic here. The surprise? Steel drums. Barcos.(Ships) Delicately sung by Jardim in Spanish and Portuguese and accompanied acoustically by Hoffmann who co-wrote it with Rubén Blades, this song was introduced on Bad Haggis’s "Span" DVD and sung there by Blades. Pipes go Latin. This one will have you dancing some smoky, sultry Cuban footwork. Fiddler Kathleen Keane contributes here, as she did on the DVD. Lest the song take itself too seriously, there’s humor: a squeak at the end that sounds suspiciously like a dog toy, and distant blasts from a steamship funnel, the inevitable reference to "Titanic" for which Rigler did the pipe work. Power to Fly. No water imagery here -- it’s about skydiving. Pipes and guitar float, swoop and freefall. Vocally, the album’s strongest nod to CSN&Y. Rocky Road to Dublin. Another of Rigler’s creative combinations. Traditional Irish tunes "Rocky Road to Dublin," "The Monaghan Twig" and "The Limestone Rock" enfold Rigler’s original composition, "Cinderella Man," closing credits music he wrote and performed for the 2005 film of the same name. Prayers. Beautiful melody, exquisite orchestration. Sounds like a surfing tribute until you hear Linden sing his own poem. Outstanding interplay among acoustic and bass guitars and low whistle. Beijo (Kiss) A delightful piece of fluffy, jazzy Brazilian pop from Linden’s pen, musically akin to Keeva, another LA band with which Jardim and Lopez perform. Hunting with Mirrors. Linden writes for pipes, sans vocals, unless you count "animal sounds" credited to him in the liner notes. If Bad Haggis has a signature sound, style and structure, this is it: sound layering. Rigler opens a cappella on Great Highland bagpipe. A single drumbeat joins in, then evolves. Lead guitar offers an ethereal obbligato. Bass guitar slaps, jabs and pivots. What started as a marching number for pipe band morphs in two minutes into hard-driving rock. Then everything stops. Some "African marketplace" noises fill the background. Drumbeats and exotic instruments emerge. Hoffmann’s guitar blazes out a pipe melody that Rigler soon doubles in the instrumental duet they term "bagtar."
"Wine Dark Sea" comes closer than "Ark" or "Trip" to capturing the energy and animation of a live Bad Haggis performance, yet even this new disc can only hint. These guys can hardly wait to play together, and when they do the pleasure is all theirs.