Book Review: Pipes & Drums: From Helmand to Horse Guards

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by 1st Battalion Scots Guards

Arc Music: 2011. Tracks, 20. Audio CD. $13.95. ISBN: EUCD2338

Modern Scottish piping by the Scots Guards.  From the kinds of music mixed here it almost seems like the SG Pipes & Drums want to get in on the kind of “Pop New Age Pipe Music” which the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have had such success with lately.  The advantage this CD has over that of the Scots DGs, in my opinion, is that it has a better mix of traditional pipe music along with the newer sounds that they are trying to make.  The addition of well known UK female vocalists Kate Rusby and Isla St Clair, and a notable male voice from the SGs itself, adds to the color and emotion of the music.  There are several tracks with the Scots Guards regimental band that are taken from another recent CD.  In this regard one can see the full spectrum of what a regimental pipes & drums can do today. 

There is some very moving and beautiful music here.  In particular the haunting "Flowers of the Forest" played with traditional solo pipes and voice adds poignancy to an ancient piece often associated with military funerals.  This is a very real thing now, the Scots Guards having recently returned from Afghanistan where several members were lost, including a drummer from the Pipes & Drums.

The new and the old are mixed with some risks here, and pipe band purists might well flinch at some of the sounds that result.  Still, one has to remember that these are front line soldiers first and musicians second.  This CD was actually produced in the theater of operations, between patrols in which the musicians were taking part as combat troops.  It is well worth pointing out that the Pipes & Drums continue a tradition of playing at the front, and when on campaign normally form a heavy machine gun section as part of regimental HQ assets. 

As a piping purist, I was pleased to find some good medleys of the older, classic tunes.  The style of playing is distinctly current, with the crisp and sharp sound that all Grade 1 Pipe bands now seek to produce.  The only problem here is that as a military pipe band something is sometimes lost when the jazzy, civvy street style is preferred over the older, traditional standards.  Since the SGs compete in piping championships, they seek to produce a quality of sound that rivals the major bands.  One noticeable fact here is the use of two three-beat drum rolls to start the pipes off, as opposed to the more traditional single five-beat drum roll always used in the past by the Scots and Irish Guards pipe bands.  This is not used at all on the CD until the end, with the regimental music.  A minor point perhaps, but traditions should be maintained and the Guards are all about tradition.

American listeners will find it of interest that a medley of US associated tunes is included to mark the fact that the SG Battle Group conducted joint OPS with US Marines and Army units while in Afghanistan.  US forces perhaps have no idea that when these British troops returned to the UK they would discard their khakis and resume the red tunics and bearskins associated with London ceremonial.  The unique ability of the British Guards to switch from ceremonial to combat roles in such short time spans is something US forces have little concept of. 

The title of this CD says it all.  Going from the wastes of Afghanistan to the drill ground at Horse Guards, London.  Quite a mind blowing experience.  The music contained herein expresses that contrast and perhaps some of the emotions involved.  Those who seek a regimental pipes & drums CD combining the best of new and old can't go too far wrong here.  Others who want to hear something different, will find interesting music here.  This is an innovative CD made by the piping soldiers today catering to what current tastes in pipe music are.  They carry on an ancient tradition while adapting it to the present.   The versatility of a modern regimental pipes & drums is quite evident here. Well worth having.  

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Roger T. Kennedy, one of the vanishing breed of born Manhattanites, holds a bachelors in history and masters degrees in history and library science, all from CUNY.  An independent scholar currently employed as a Senior Librarian in the New York Public Library system, he has had a life-long interest in both military history and military music, since his dad took him to see the Welsh Guards and the Argylls at Madison Square Garden.  Kennedy also has been a life-long wargamer, going back to the SPI and Avalon Hill days, and enjoys both boardgames and miniatures, has done Civil War reenacting, and enjoys historical travel to see all the famous battlefields he has read about and fought over in games.  He highly recommends the International Military Music Society.

Reviewer: Roger T. Kennedy   


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