Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar – Utopia and Wasteland

Album Review | Rootbeat Records | Review by Steve Henderson | Stars: 4/5

Whilst you might have seen Greg Russell appearing as part of The Transports cast and Ciaran Algar lending his talents to Sam Kelly’s Lost Boys, it’s their appearance as a duo that has caused the biggest stir. Winners of the Young Folk Award at BBC Radio Two Folk Awards in 2013, the duo offers up Utopia and Wasteland as their fourth studio album. It arrives after both winning the Horizon Award for Best Emerging Act at the 2014 Folk Awards as well as being nominated as Best Duo in 2015. As much as their mantelpiece has filled with awards, their climb up the slippery pole of popularity can be simply stated as meteoric. Utopia and Wasteland marks something of a departure from earlier duo records which were largely filled with the songs of others and traditional arrangements of tried and tested folk material. Not only is production in the hands of the vastly experienced Mark Tucker but, also, all but two of the eleven tracks are written by the duo members. The material tends to fall into instrumentals contributed by Ciaran Algar and songs written Greg Russell. The former gets chance to show his abundant fiddle skills on “Warwick Road”, “The Moving Cloud” and the waltz leading into a triumphant finish that closes the album, “De Gule Huis”. A collection of tracks using tune sets that show off his ability to be as gentle and moving as he is energetic and vibrant. As if to prove wrong my simple categorisation of their talents above, it’s a song by Ciaran Algar that provides in its lyrics the title of the album, as “We Are Leaving” considers the juxtaposition of rich and poor that was apparent in the tragic Grenfell fire. It’s the kind of political swipe that recalls Chris Wood at his finest and, indeed, “1908” continues that political thread as Greg Russell adapts the words of a Broadside Ballad to his own tune. However, that’s not all. In his song writing breadth, Russell shows a maturity that exceeds his young years with songs about relationships with “All the While” and a yearning for home on “Seven Hills”. It’s just one of the indicators that this is a duo packed with talent – you’ll be hearing lots more of this pair, for sure. Starting with Utopia and Wasteland would be a good jumping off point for you.