Stunning showcase confirms this Irish band are way more than just dronetastic as they expand and extend their mastery of upending the tradition.
Release Date: 24th March 2023
Record Label: Rough Trade
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
Nervous? Are ye’ sitting comfortably? Trepidation and comfort always make for awkward bedfellows, this fact well known to the Dublin quartet, scarcely making life easy for any lover of acoustic Irish roots music, the daftness of such a label long gone from any description of their paradox. Now onto album four, they continue to wreak their Celtic noise terror in further beguiling ways, second-guessing the obvious and bypassing the expected. Last time around, 2019’s The Livelong Day, they had more drones than the Civil Aviation Authority usually allow, whilst simultaneously reviving the decayed fortunes of The Irish Rover, returning it into long-forgotten splendour. Fasten your seatbelts!
Go Dig My Grave opens with characteristic cheer, the unaccompanied voice of Radie Peat all you hear for the first minute. Like Lisa O’Neill, she has a pleasingly murky edge to blunt any unnecessary sweetness; much as her name suggests, her voice too sounds heavily peated. Bang on sixty seconds and in comes a sepulchral clang of bouzouki, repeated for effect, distorted chords and notes entering from the wings, as do distant choral vocals. All very chilling, all very pagan. The build is constant and unsettling, harmoniums and percussion chipping away at any preconception, the instrumentation evoking air raid sirens and, possibly, the passage to hell. A ghostly shimmer then introduces Clear Away In The Morning, as in the morning after, at least given that mood, ahead slowly morphing into what could be early Pink Floyd, slide guitars, strummed guitars, extraneous electronic sound, and then, the vocals. Blimey, if Syd did shanties… Operatic banshee wails add to the discomfiture and it is two triumphs in a row.
Fugue 1 is the first of three brief ambient interludes that lie scattered across this mammoth 71 minute disc, palate cleansers that clear the deck. Which allows Master Crowley’s to come and remind us how good they actually are in their default genre, a bevy of concertinas dancing together. A danse macabre, mind, with Peat the main player, here joined by guests, her sister being one of the additional players, the repetition becoming ever more menacing, echoing, extraordinarily, of all things, the Stranglers’ Waltzinblack. Newcastle restores a sense of calm, a beautifully sung ballad, Peat and guitar, the rest of the quartet adding a perfection of choral support, as sombre percusion and atmospheric effects fill out the scene, some mist-filled bay, probably, far at sea. Astounding, and confirmatory of the dues well paid on the Dublin folk circuit.
Fugue 2 does what it does, before the band shows that they can also do some new: Netta Perseus, an original by co-founder of the group, Daragh Lynch. The fingerpicked guitar is beautiful, which, together with the hushed joint vocals, sound to have bled in from some lost 60s Californian folk-rock album. Of course, it is never that simple, with what sounds like orchestral brass slowly billowing up in the background. A warning perhaps? Indeed, as it halts and a tumbril beats, the song becoming a processional, the instrumentation leading you nowhere, nowhere safe, anyway. The vocals now return, minus Peat, it now becoming a ghastly/ghostly nursery rhyme.
The New York Trader is another (sea)change of direction, an almost orthodox ballad, this time helmed, I think, by the vocal of Daragh’s brother, Ian. It is remarkable to realise these two brothers, initially hardcore punks, should have evolved into this juggernaut of folk distortion, between them adept on pipes, whistles, concertina, guitars and keyboards. An unencumbered vocal it is just the job for this maritime narrative. Fraternal harmony kicks in, as the storm gathers. Within the eye of that storm, a quiet piano-bedded verse drops swiftly into silence, ahead a fierce reprise of percussion and drone, choral vocals, this time surely the harpies, calling the sailors to the rocks. A well-placed fiddle solo, from Cormac Mac Diarmada, the fourth and final member, then hooks up with concertina for a hornpipe, itself drawn into the swirling maelstrom. Which is probably the time to mention the role John ‘Spud’ Murphy has here, returning once more as their producer, reponsible for the heady amalgamation of studio gimmicky and pedalboards to the acoustic array of instrumentation available to the band. His alchemy in the production of this prickly and impenetrable hedge of sound is little short of inspirational.
Lord Abore and Mary Flynn sees Mac Diarmada break his solo vocal cherry, and is a deceptively simple ballad, Peat slotting in alongside his tenor, an endearing union that could grace any a more mainstream recording. Mellotron (mellotron!) appears to give a background wash over the intricate guitar picking. Anyone thinking Lankum to be one trick ponies might have cause to revise their opinion here. Or, actually, frequently, the realisation that dronestorms are but one place on their palette, they being equally capable of this bewitching beauty. But you wouldn’t wish ’em all soft, would you, with Fugue 3 extinguishing any such whimsy. Except the following On A Monday Morning is then the most fragile song offered here, an almost Renaissance melody and another Lynch vocal. Spooky organ reminds all is unlikely to go well, and, as the lyric becomes apparent, it is full of regret and remorse. The harmonies are magical and I am finding myself again entranced. Mandolin, Mac Diarmada, gives further weight to the mood of self-immolation, baleful FX adding salt to the wounds, self-inflicted.
Almost an hour in and still there’s more! One more, to be fair, but it’s a 13-minute epic, The Turn, another original. Epic, right enough. Like nothing else anywhere on this record, or indeed anywhere else in their repertoire, this wrongfoots any second guess, and is an optimistic paean to better days, (almost) free of any outside studio chicanery. This could come, again, from Pink Floyd, but now newly post Syd and with added Gilmour, the vocals a dead ringer for anything off Atom Heart Mother or Meddle. A switch of gear for the uncharacteristically chirpy chorus, dropping back for further verses. But what is that cloud coming up on the horizon, some ominous harbinger? The backing drops away, voices alone, bizarrely evoking the Beach Boys, bar the brogue, but that cloud is still encroaching, the second half of the song surely intent on crushing any chance of a happy ending. The vocals continue, almost on a loop, gradually becoming lost in the cacaphony that engulfs. Better days? Be careful what you wish for! Gulp….
And that’s it. How to create the album of the year in 12 short steps. OK, quite long steps, give or take the fugues, but a powerful contender by anyone’s reckoning and certainly mine. Folk music? Yeah, right. And some.
Go chill on Radie Peat’s vocals on Go Dig My Grave:
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