I associate Martyn Bennett with great musical talent gone too soon, and grieving the joyous feeling his music brought. He was firmly rooted in the traditional music of Scotland, and fused that with electronic dance beats and other cool things. I probably first heard his music on Thistle & Shamrock right after he died in 2005 at the age of 33 from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The first album I got was GRIT, which I interpreted as being thematically grappling with the struggle with illness that weighed on his final years. Just a few years ago, my friend Alex shared with me this fantastic 28 min documentary about the album made in 2003:
I love almost every track on Grit, especially Blackbird, Chanter, Nae Regrets, Ale House, and Rant.
His eponymous first album in 1995 sounds a lot like other celtic fusion music I listened to (including Mouth Music which he contributed to and whose leader Martin Swan engineered some of Bennett’s albums) with drums, bass, synths, and Bennett’s piping and fiddling alongside samples of Scottish people singing or talking. I also like Bothy Culture which is rather playful, though it too has an infusion of grit and death in my favorite track from it, Hallaig:
He composed a longer piece called Mackay’s Memoirs for the 1999 centennial of the Edinburgh Music School, and which was also played for the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and I believe it was performed at Celtic Connections in tribute on the 10-year anniversary of his death. I didn’t realize that the recording of the composition that I’m familiar wasn’t recorded for several years and according to Wikipedia, “It was recorded on the morning after Bennett’s death on 31 January 2005 by the young people of Broughton High School who were unaware that he had died, the news being kept back until recording was over.”
In 2000 he was diagnosed, and the album he released that year, Hardland, and his final album, Grit, are more electronic and grittier (though Glen Lyon released in between is softer and focuses on his mother’s Gaelic singing). Hardland is the clubbiest of his albums, and these tracks really set the bar for the danceclub sub-sub-genre of celtic fusion music (which I associate a little less with Shooglenifty, who I’ll write about soon, but I do associate with their exhortation at the start of The Pipe Tunes on Live at Selwyn Hall, Box: “This is dance music!” This vibe is also articulated by Elias Alexander in his music which I consider very much a descendent of Martyn Bennett’s if not the grittiest Bennett vibes. If you’re into it you can watch a full set by Elias here.)
My favorite tracks on Hardland (also Distortion Pipe and This Sky Thunders, the first of his songs I had a recording of, which I can’t find videos for):
I had decided to write my first artist deep dive about Martyn Bennett a week or so ago because I really think he’s the greatest of all time, and because the early loss of him demands loving tributes hold him up as such. But then yesterday, I had to say goodbye to my beloved cat Lilly and I’m feeling extra appreciative of those who are passed. So I guess this post is dedicated to Lilly: may she and Martyn Bennett both be free of pain somewhere enjoying a sunny armchair and some kickass music.