Iarla Ó Lionáird, The unmistakable Gaelic voice of Afro Celt Sound System, is a peerless exponent of the Sean nós singing tradition and a pioneering composer, song-writer and recording artist. In recent years he’s worked extensively on traditional and classical music projects. Six years after the award winning Invisible Fields, Iarla has combined tradition and newly written material to produce his latest solo album, Foxlight.
Working with guitarist and producer Leo Abrahams, Foxlight developed as the pair moved between Iarla’s home in Kilkenny and Leo’s East London base. Contributions include the understated elegance of John Hopkins’ piano, complimented by Neil McColl’s guitar work. Throughout the album Caoimhin O Raghallaigh’s hardanger provides a deep, unearthly, timelessness; while Sara Marielle Gaup gently hypnotises with her distinctive Sami yoiking. Strings duo Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell (Geese) are a prefect match for Iarla’s experimental approach, and Leafcutter John provides structured bursts of electronica.
As always Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice is rich, compelling and nothing short of prefect. The gentle start to The Heart of the World gives way, in time, to a rich, pastoral soundscape that’s instantly reminiscent of Iarla’s previous solo work. In Daybreak, Jon Hopkins’ piano marks the movement of time in a simple and effective backing. Foxlight benefits from more of Iarla’s own songwriting than Invisible fields, but he’s never one to shy away from adapting traditional song to his own style. If anything, the traditional offerings, while fewer, are closer to accepted norms than before. The melody for the long established favourite Fainne Geal an Lae (The Dawning Of The Day) is instantly recognizable, and the arrangement provides a more standard approach, but as always, there’s also an expressiveness and a clarity in the vocal performance that simply can’t be equaled. Ealanor Plunkett receives a more Americanised treatment, while The Goat Song is a pure, uncomplicated delight.
In Glistening Fields poetic verses contrast strongly with an anthemic chorus. There are also periods of exuberant jubilance; Hand In Hand with its chamber strings and strident chorus, and For The Heavens, where the sparse acoustic strings and piano give way to electric guitar and driving percussion.
Towards the close of the album, the music takes on a more reflective (yet still familiar) character. The poetry of Domhnall O’ Liathain evokes ancient voices in a dark, searching lament, Imeacht. The elaborate synergy of Seven Suns is gently exhilarating, while the apparently meagre Stay, cloaks a sonic intricacy.
A fascinating group of collaborators, Leo Abrahams’ patient, instinctive production and Iarla’s unique voice have resulted in a release that can stand proudly next to its predecessor, Invisible Fields. Comparisons are inevitable, simply because Invisible Fields is the only frame of reference we have for Iarla’s ethereal and compelling work. Ó Lionáird has said that “This time, I’ve tried to just experience the voice, I wanted to reach new levels of expression”. After Invisible Fields, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. But it is, and Foxlight is the proof.
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Foxlight is released on Real World Records 26th Sept.