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NORTHERN LIGHTS - Dubh Agus Geal – Darkness And Light

NORTHERN LIGHTS - Dubh Agus Geal – Darkness And Light
Private Label  LMM011001

Lorcán MacMathúna, from Cork, is an excellent young sean-nós singer whose work I first encountered three years ago on his intense CD Rógaire Dubh. Here he unveils the first release of his ambitious ongoing Northern Lights project, which traces similarities in Irish and Scandinavian traditional music by means of what Lorcán terms “explorations of Gaelic-Norse folk roots”. That description might betoken a musical approach that’s vaguely trendy or else drily academic, but this intriguing disc is in fact neither, instead being a brilliantly listenable and stimulating musical experience.
In many ways it’s a natural continuation of what we encountered on Rógaire Dubh, where maximum impact is gained by the compelling and evocative vocalising of Lorcán himself and principal collaborator Raphael De Cock, cradled within opulent yet lucidly conceived textures that, while often sparsely-stranded, embody a bleakness that never lacks warmth, one which though invariably transparent remains highly telling.

Lorcán’s central thesis, expounded in the essay hectically crammed onto the inside first page of the admirably informative and voluminous accompanying booklet, is that folk music is part of the collective consciousness and experience rather than a single person’s story, and this is aptly demonstrated by his open-hearted sharing of modes and idioms familiar from traditional Irish and Scandinavian musics, which are performed in parallel and in empathic union on the same musical stage, as it were. The very sequencing of the dozen items on the disc accentuates this approach, and the listener remains riveted throughout, while it’s impossible to tire of the constantly changing soundscape where the panoply of accompanying instrumental colours (pipes, whistles, flutes, hardanger fiddle, bouzouki, guitar, jew’s harp, shruti box, bodhrán) is used ever-inventively (yet often quite unobtrusively) to enhance the texts and melodies. The sheer power of the words and music transcends any potentially disconcerting impact of the constant switching between sung languages (full texts and detailed synopses are all available in the booklet), and the overall effect is both timeless and gently epic.

Over The Waves (Craggie Hill) juxtaposes stories of departure and separation by sea from two perspectives, economically too (in under three minutes), whereas several other tracks stretch out the mood and experimental pairings in more extended fashion yet still don’t overstay their welcome. The Frozen North presents two interlocking narratives of loss, the Irish elegy Tuireamh Mhic Finín Dhuibh and the Norwegian ballad Dei Frealause Menn, given an eerie supernatural demeanour by the incorporation of overtone singing, while the dreamlike vision Aisling Gheal is characterised by a weird stringed accompaniment from a chatkhan (Siberian harp). The aching resignation of Ardaí Chuain is expressed in a vocal line of extremely poignant beauty, and further contrast is provided by The Chickens Lip, a glorious and vigorous melding of dance tunes, whereby a gangar (Norwegian walking dance) flows into a jig (the latter gleefully combining Irish lilting and Swedish lalling) before tripping off into a jubilant reel. Moments of repose are provided by the reflective “listening tune” Nordlys (played as a hardingfele solo) and the lovely lullaby that prefaces Bog Braon, to which a brief coda-cum-bonus track (a reprise of Nordlys) is appended, setting the seal on this enchanting, mesmerising disc.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 90 of The Living Tradition magazine.