At the end of Last year Lorcán Mac Mathúna, with Northern Lights (review here), took us back to mediaeval links between Ireland and Scandinavia. In Dubh agus Geal we were given a celebration of those links, drawn from the oral traditions of both regions. Lorcán’s latest project, The Deep End Of The Ford, takes us even further back in time; in a telling of the famous An Táín Bó Cualaigne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) – An Táin.
The epic Irish legend of Queen Meabdh and An Táín Bó Cualaigne is an Iron Age tale of politics, bloodshed and heroism that’s been retold through the centuries. Meabdh’s thirst for wealth and power manifests itself in a struggle to gain possession of a prize bull. The resultant conflict calls all the tribal powers of Ireland to battle and sets brother against brother.
In a unique combination of ancient, traditional and contemporary sources, Lorcán weaves vocal performances taken directly from the contents of 12th century manuscripts, with music that relies heavily on traditional melody and modern electronics alike. The Deep End Of The Ford are Lorcán MacMathúna (voice); Seán MacErlaine (bass clarinet, saxophone, electronics); Martin Tourish (piano accordion); Eoghan Neff (fiddle and looping station); Flaithrí Neff (uileann pipes, low whistles).
The ten movements presented in An Táín are each based on a separate passages in the tale. From the moment An Táín’s upbeat, cantering opening movement, The Pillow Talk, begins it’s clear that this is a singular and carefully crafted work. As the album progresses contrasting approaches to the music help distinguish the separate movements – The Prophesy of Fidelm’s dark, dreamlike echo emerging from a mist of sound becomes clear in a vocal performance that moves between power and murmur. The powerful sections of the vocal are stirring and anthemic, while the woodwind merged with ethereal electronics creates an enthralling dreamscape.
Some tracks are more song-like than others – Cú Chulainn’s Sleep has a gorgeous opening with pipes over plucked strings delivering a melody that’s echoed in the vocal. Whereas The Sorcerous Distortions is more evocative of dramatic tales by a communal fire, as a strident vocal injects a sense of rage and urgency that climbs towards two voices raised in incantation. The Manipulation of Fherdia, which reveals Meabdh’s successful attempts to control Cú Chulainn’s foster-brother, seems to employ modern cinematic techniques, with eerie woodwind and disturbing, demonic whispers accompanying a droning vocal.
Even taken out of the literary context, the music and song are accomplished and fascinating in their own right – Caoineadh Fherdia is an extensive lament with a synthesized, stretched out Jaws harp ‘neath the lament repeated on uileann pipes. If there’s one instrument that can deliver a lament with a power of expression approaching that of a vocal, it’s uileann pipes. The Cries of Sualtaim’s Head delivers the tale of the original headless horseman where strings predominate alongside a galloping vocal that immediately injects a sense of urgency. If any track could stand out on this album it would be this one. The pace is constant, the vocal alternates from hushed haste to strident insistence, and all the while the plucked strings and Eoghan Neff’s masterly fiddle in an elemental maelstrom.
Like Dubh Agus Geal – the sleeve notes for An Táin are essential to get the most out of this album. You can enjoy the music simply for what it is – enthralling and wonderfully crafted. But the descriptive notes put the music created by The Deep End Of The Ford within the context of the ancient narrative it portrays, and help take the listener back hundreds of years to the telling of the tale, and thousands of years to the birth of the legend.
Review by: Neil McFadyen