Lily Neill & Vesa Norilo – Tales and Golden Histories: Album Review

Breathtaking arrangements of the music of Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Brittany and beyond from harpist Lily Neill and cellist Vesa Norilo.  Ever wondered what a harp and a cello can achieve together??

Release Date:  7th November 2023

Label: Self Release

Formats: CD

Harpist Lily Neill only came to the attention of At The Barrier a few weeks ago, when we reviewed The Abbot, Clive Carroll’s tribute to John Renbourn.  Lily was one of the ensemble who helped to lift Clive’s interpretations of a selection of Renbourn’s work to heavenly levels and, now, here comes an opportunity for a deep listen to what Lily can do on that harp of hers. 

Tales and Golden Histories is a glorious compendium of folk tunes from Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Brittany, with a few newly-composed tunes, and pieces from further afield thrown in for good measure.  You won’t be able to spot the joins – Lily and Vesa are absolute masters of their respective crafts; and, I’ll tell you something else:  you’ll be astounded by the limitless scope of what a harp and a cello – both placed in the right hands, of course – can achieve together.

From Maryland, USA, Lily has been playing harp since she was nine years old.  Her prowess on the instrument has been recognized with multiple awards, and she’s even drawn praise from admirers as diverse as former US President Bill Clinton and from The Chieftains.  She’s serious about her music – she’s earned degrees from The University of Limerick and from The University of Helsinki and she’s made two previous albums: Without Words (2004) and The Habit of a Foreign Sky (2011).

Vesa is a Finnish cellist and a graduate of Helsinki’s famed Sibelius Academy.  His musical projects have included ventures into folk, world music, pop and electronic music, as well as composing and performing music for film and stage, and even circus productions.  And, if you check his background further, you’ll find that he’s also known for his role in developing Kronos – a programming language and compiler suite for musical signal processing.

Lily and Vesa first came together as long ago as 2005 when they discovered that they shared a mutual love of the same range of music and, particularly, a desire to explore the seemingly limitless possibilities to be achieved from combining their respective instruments.  Tales and Golden Histories is their first album together and it serves as a veritable gallery of those possibilities.  Really – if you’d never considered it possible that just two instruments, working in perfect accordance together, could turn a collection of traditional and quasi-traditional tunes into a glittering, riveting and epic symphony, you need to hear Tales and Golden Histories.

The understanding between Lily and Vesa is surely telepathic and it’s wonderful to hear each instrument, each musician, switch seamlessly from providing accompaniment to taking over the melody.  Lily is equally comfortable supplying a sharp, percussive rhythm for Vesa’s melodic cello as she is in delivering some of the most delightful, sparkling melodies that you’ll ever hear.  Meanwhile, Vesa coaxes the full range of sounds from his cello, from plucked basslines and growling background sounds to light, sprightly jigs and polkas, via everything in between.  They’re a magical combination, and Tales and Golden Histories is a thorough delight.

Tales and Golden Histories is an album that will give pleasure, whether your preference is to dip and out or to sit and give these tunes the absolute attention they deserve.  Every track is mesmerizing and packed with variety – there’s no chance to get bored.  For example, the Irish-inspired set, Nettles in the Bed 1971 begins life as a mystical harp melody which becomes almost rocky, as Vesa eschews plucking to pick up his bow, before the tune takes on a symphonic quality that carries the listener along on its own unique tide.  And this particular listener didn’t care where that tide took him, either!

It’s impossible not to tap along to the winter-flavoured Swedish melody, Polska Från Småland, whilst Akuvalssi, another tune with Swedish origins, takes the listener through the whole gamut of emotions from despair to pure joy.  Elsewhere, the joyous Järvilän Sotiisi, a light-hearted tune that is easy to imagine being used as the soundtrack to tragi-comic silent movie, has hints of English, American, Scandinavian and Russian roots, whilst the slow, modern-sounding Where We Danced is probably the closest thing on the album to a comfortable, predictable, conventional tune.

On an album like Tales and Golden Histories, on which every track is a gem, it is, perhaps, churlish to select a favourite.  But, if challenged to do so, I would probably plumb for The Stride/ Christmas Eve/ Farewell to Ireland, an epic set of tunes that, possibly more than any other track, characterizes exactly what Tales and Golden Histories is all about.  It’s got the lot – frantic celloing (is that a word? I’m not sure…) from Vesa, Lily’s percussive rhythms, a harp melody that’s as clear and light as dusty snow and a rhythmic accompaniment from Vesa that almost falls into the reggae camp.  It’s marvellous.

And the whole thing is brought to its slow, sleepy ending with Lily and Vesa’s version of The Ookpik Waltz, a tune arranged from the repertoire of Canadian fiddler Frankie Rodgers.  It’s one final chance to bask in the musicianship and intuition of these two fine performers and a beautifully warm ending to an excellent album.

There’s a paragraph in the album’s press release that summarises, with better words than any that I can conjure up, just exactly what Tales and Golden Histories is all about: “Tales and Golden Histories captures the wonder that instrumental music can convey so well. Few languages – other than that of music – can bridge and question so seamlessly. What started as tune sharing became an adventure of exploration, of seeing how far Lily and Vesa could push the harp and cello to create as expansive a sound-world as possible. Listeners will be hard pressed to find more obscure melodies, on less obvious instruments; Tales and Golden Histories leaves convention at the door, revelling in freedom of possibility.”

Tales and Golden Histories is a delight from start to finish.  Listen, appreciate, and return.  Again and again.

It’s an old(ish) video, but get a feel for the magical Lily Neill & Vesa Norilo harp and cello combo here:

Lily Neill: Official Website / Facebook / Instagram
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