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John Mulhearn
The Pipe Factory Tom Bolton , July 28th, 2020 07:17

John Mulhearn's third album, The Pipe Factory makes a powerful manifesto for the bagpipes, finds Tom Bolton

Scottish pipe music seems to be emerging from a twilight zone of, as John Mulhearn puts it, “self-parodying light entertainment” or the “pseudo-military”. Mulhearn plays the Highland bagpipes, but he sees sonic possibilities that our ears have been trained to discount. Based in Glasgow, he has produced The Pipe Factory as a manifesto for the bagpipes, replacing kitsch familiarity with startling experimentation, and presenting an entire piping scene through multiple collaborations. The result bears comparison with Brìghde Chaimbeul's remarkable 2019 record, The Reeling, and suggests that something both very old and very modern is stirring in the Glasgow East End.

The album is recorded partly on location in the Calton area of Glasgow where the Pipe Factory itself is to be found, next to the Barrowland Ballroom and the indoor Barras Market. This Victorian building where clay pipes were once made becomes an instrument as Mulhearn wires it for sound and, from the sound of the opening track, plays it like a drum. Echoing percussive sounds and a muted pipe tune show the way on ‘The Pipe Factory’, which is the product of multi-layered sound engineering. It is intriguingly hard to classify, and the pipes immediately sound more expressive and dynamic than in a traditional context. Mulhearn, whose liquid playing is a delight in itself, also uses the instrument itself to make unexpected sounds - treated clicks, pops and wheezes from the valves and reed. Drones are sampled and manipulated, and field recordings of voices from the Barras make their way into the tracks. The acoustic of the factory, however, is unchanged and the resulting sound is highly distinctive. The cavernous echoes of the factory floor create the sense of a vast space that expands into the city streets and beyond. Sometimes Mulhearn seems to have moved far away from us into another part of the building, while the electronic hum and gentle interference stay close in our ears.

The Pipe Factory also features a clutch of fellow pipers, a collection of Glasgow musicians whose playing teems with life. This album is embedded in its place, and the tracks are annotated with locations and histories, from the Hielan Jessie pub on Gallowgate to Maggie McIver, founder of the Barras Market. The Pipe Factory, only Mulhearn’s third album, has big ambitions but it delivers brilliantly on them. It is entirely unpredictable with a track such as ‘Champion’ combining eerie atmospherics, the building merging with the mixing deck, with the stomping playing of champion piper Finlay Johnston, whose streaming notes sounds possessed. The piper seems to be struggling to control the pipes themselves, wrestling with the living instrument. Mulhearn’s album makes a powerful case for the highland bagpipes as a versatile, irresistible instrument, and the source of a new, Scottish sound. The Pipe Factory, enhanced by lockdown listening, stirs a powerful urge to jump on a train to Glasgow and sit in a Calton pub, surrounded by people making the music that belongs there.