In a testing and tempestuous album, bold indie talent Pictish Trail forges his own path
As musical tributes to the Scottish Hebrides go, Johnny Lynch’s salute to the Isle of Eigg, Island Family, is certainly an unusual one. There’s barely an acoustic instrument in sight, no soaring fiddles or intricate guitar to evoke the windswept landscape and rough seas. Instead, jagged electronics and coarse percussion cut across seas of seething synths in the latest project by the Scottish musician better known as Pictish Trail.
A long way from the soft, glittering psychedelia of Lynch’s 2016 record, Future Echoes, Island Family accentuates the harsh angles and abrasive textures that had begun to surface in his 2020 LP Thumb World, and adds a heavy dose of his signature surrealism too.
From the brittle, insistent percussion that announces the opening track ‘Island Family’, right until the abrupt, cut-and-paste sonic patchwork that forms the album’s finale, the record is quite an onslaught of surprises and sharp changes. In ‘Natural Successor’, the noisy, oppressive atmosphere drives home the horrors of the climate emergency foreshadowed in the lyrics: ‘you’re the natural successor to our manufactured disasters.’
‘It Came Back’ feels even more apocalyptic, both in its cacophonous outro and its foreboding imagery: ‘Overgrown wasteland, certified replacement, / pit nation against nation, military emplacement.’
And yet, amongst the chaos, Lynch weaves in glimpses of tranquil beauty. Behind the noisy grit of ‘Natural Successor’ hangs a ghostly falsetto, a Thom Yorke-style phantom vocal line. Each track opens up as it progresses, letting some natural light into the dense electronic jungle. Brass bubbles up through the piercing staccatto beat of ‘In the Land of the Dead’, while on ‘The River It Runs Inside of Me’, the computerised tangle transforms into a dreamy string section. Even ‘Green Mountain’, the heaviest cut on the record, is intercut with a serene nursery-rhyme melody. The result is an unsettling psychedelic effect, reminiscent of Magical Mystery Tour in its naive innocence.
But these are mere flickers of sunlight in a raging storm. For a real breather from the clamour, you need to wait until ‘Thistle’, an ambient, starry haze of a song, shot through with glittering 80s synths. While the follow-up ‘Melody Something’ is much busier and more assertive, it too is free of the harsh edges and cold, hollow percussion that punctuate other tracks. Instead, its bright and colourful vortex of sound is unmistakeably indebted to Animal Collective’s Merryweather Post Pavilion.
The squelchy, humid ‘Nuclear Sunflower Swamp’ welcomes distortion and jarring rhythms back into the album before the metallic clatter of ‘Green Mountain’ takes over. Following that, the final track is simultaneously the most jarring and the most melodic. Once you get past the slightly clumsy gimic of cutting between melodies like flicking between channels, ‘Remote Control’ is actually a very catchy indie pop track, and one of the album’s best, but the sonic whiplash Lynch creates doesn’t make it an easy listen.
At every point in Island Family, Pictish Trail is seeking to disrupt expectation and subvert convention, to challenge both the listener and himself as an artist. If anything’s lacking from this dynamic latest project, it’s a little humanity. Across its 10 tracks, Lynch more than proves himself a bold and daring musician and an outside-the-box thinker. He’s blown us away, all that’s left is for him to move us.