One need not know the language, nor the Scripture they're singing, to feel overwhelmed by it. Thankfully, in this age of the Internet, it needn't remain unheard by saints-and-ain'ts seeking a near divine musical experience.

Unknown Various

(Arc Light Editions LP, U.K.)

One of the more curious musical phenomena of the already musically curious 1990s was the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silas' Chant and the ensuing compact discs of Gregorian plainsong monophony deluging both classical and pop album sales charts. The unadorned vocalizing of mendicants became peaceful aural salve for many times over as many listeners as those who could translate the ancient Latin in which the robed brothers were singing. Around the same time, elements of the same kind of singing were showing up in European dance pop such as Enigma's "Sadeness, Part 1" and  the ethno-ambient new age music crossovers of Deep Forest, among other acts apt to show up on a TV-advertised Pure Moods compilation.

Salm: Gaelic Psalms from the Hebrides of Scotland may not become so widely appreciated as any of those recordings of monastery dwellers a couple of decades ago, but it won't be for lack of similarly transcendent beauty. Recorded by a Free Church congregation in their place of worship on Scotland's Isle of Lewis and released on CD in 2004 as a fundraiser for a local nursing home and hospice, it has been pressed as a deluxe LP edition by England's Arc Light Editions label for the edification of saint and sinner alike.

The sainted should appreciate that the text for the mass improvisatory singing on Salm derives strictly from the Old Testament's own proto-hymnal, with twelve of the Psalms interpreted by the co-ed parishoners of Back Free Church. What the congregants in this acoustically resonant and impeccably mic'ed place of worship are singing is a precedent to the kind of lead-and-response line singing heard in U.S. churches in earlier decades and centuries, perhaps last in those of African-American majorities before the mania for European-American evangelicals' praise & worship choruses found their way there. 

A song leader, or precentor in the context of the denomination's order of service and its chosen musical form,  starts off with one line, and those filling the pews respond in massive, swelling, nigh overpowering, warm waves of solemnly joyous sound. If not always exactly lively, what's heard on Salm may simply be too alive to fill the same sort of meditative niche the rhapsodizing of all those monastic mendicants did a couple of decades ago.  One need not know the language, nor the Scripture they're singing, to feel overwhelmed by it.

It may be my ears and the path of my musical acculturation speaking, but the Gaelic language and the responsive back-and-forth of the singing in it here reminds me of some of Native American powwow singing, too. Minus the percussion, of course. Not a single drum beat permeates Salm. but the irregular, individuated meters comprise part of its compelling charm.

And as a mirror of the Scottish free church's theology, the majestic sweetness of its music belies what some, especially non-believers, feel to be the sect's coldness of its Calvinistic approach to Christianity. I'd wager this kind of singing may not lend itself as well to neophytes joining in easily, unlike my experiences at the Welsh hymn sings I've attended in my state over the past decade (often boisterous singing of as often theologically rich hymns, even if they're nigh invariably heard in churches far along the liberal downgrade). But it's doubtless rewarding once one masters it. 

Arc Light Editions immaculately-appointed vinyl pressing of Salm could be sold out by the time this review is published, but it can be heard online here- -and purchased in its original CD iteration here: It's likely too much to ask to expect a U.S. CCM label to license this treasure for domestic release, but this could be worth an enterprising folk or classical company's while. Thankfully, in this age of the Internet, it needn't remain unheard by saints-and-ain'ts seeking a musical experience not far from divine.