You might think I’ve got a bee in me bonnet about progressive folk music at the moment, but perhaps it’s just the fates lining up a succession of some of the finest, most adventurous sounding music made under the folk banner that it’s ever been my pleasure to hear. The Gloaming is another Irish ensemble, with an American twist, whose formation a couple of years hence created ripples of excitement that quickly grew to a tidal surge of appreciation on the back of a string of sold out live performances. Making their debut at The National Concert Hall, Dublin, to a capacity crowd that included the Irish PM, signalled an auspicious start. Subsequent shows have built on this initial promise making their self titled debut keenly anticipated and with the usual quality assurance of Real World it doesn’t disappoint. If anything it is even better than expected.
[pullquote]Tradition in music is not frozen at a point in time, but is a process in motion that is undergoing constant change and refinement. It is a reflection of people’s lives[/pullquote]The Gloaming is a quintet of musicians who all individually have a reputation for creating extraordinary music. The roots of their sound are the wellspring of the Irish tradition, but those origins have been moulded into an entirely new sound, with elements of modernism and neo-classical minimalism, without compromising the essential soul of the music. This is part of the anticipation that The Gloaming has created and Martin Hayes has previously made the point that, “Tradition in music is not frozen at a point in time, but is a process in motion that is undergoing constant change and refinement. It is a reflection of people’s lives.” He takes it even further saying, “In Irish music today there is much debate and division on the issues of continuity versus change and tradition versus innovation. I think it is a mistake to divide these issues as the music is capable of containing all of these parts at once. The real battle is between artistic integrity and the forces that impede creative expression.” Amen to that.
Those quotes are taken from sleeve notes written for his collaborative recoding with Dennis Cahill. Their long lasting musical partnership is at the heart of this record too. Martin is of course one of the most highly regarded Irish fiddle players and the recipient of numerous national and international awards. Originally a native of County Clare he now splits his time between Ireland and the USA, having made his home across the Atlantic few years ago. Guitarist, Dennis Cahill, is Chicago born and bred and a graduate of the city’s prestigious music college, though his family roots go back to the Dingle peninsula. Beyond his work with Martin, he is a much sought after accompanist, with his own unique, sparring style and also a producer of note with his own studio.
Although not as well established as musical pairings go, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, the youngest of the band has collaborated with Martin and Dennis, but also with sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, who is the voice of The Gloaming. Caoimhin (pronounced kwa-veen), is a Dublin native and is feted for both his fiddle and uilleann pipe playing, but here his hardanger style fiddle adds some of the latter’s drone to the sound, with its sympathetic strings. Iarla is of course well known to Real World devotees for his work with The Afro Celt Sound System and four beautiful solo albums for the label. Despite his wide ranging and diverse musical achievements, he is still justifiably regarded as one of the finest, living voices of the Irish tradition.
The last of the quintet is perhaps the most unusual addition to the lie-up. Firstly the piano is not commonly associated with traditional music, but Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), is a New Yorker who doesn’t share the others background. Still as he explains, “Maybe why this band is working well is that I don’t recognize the lines that the rest of this band sees. They’re very happy to go outside of those boundaries, but the fact that I don’t even know the tradition helps make them disappear.” Much more than that, however, the sense of mutual respect and trust sees Thomas also take the producers reins for the record.
It’s his piano that gets things under-way, albeit in a very quiet, muted way. He even damps some of the strings softening the sound further. As Iarla joins, his distinctive voice stops any lingering thought process in its tracks and immediately commands your attention. Song 44 is derived from an 800 year old poem, in which a man dreams about the woman he loves. There’s an otherworldly quality to it and the fiddles play their spectral part, but as the song builds they join to create a fulsome, soaring climax.
The songs and tunes alternate and Allistrum’s March is built around some tightly coiled fiddle playing, with Thomas adding a lyrical undertow of piano. Again the track builds steadily and is all about the feel, as the melody itself is simple enough, but the way that it’s played adds a subtle weight. Following on, The Necklace of Wrens is just beautiful and again Iarla and Thomas lead the song out, Dennis then joins with a retrained arpeggio and a swell of strings starts to gather the substance of the song. Once again theirs a haunting minimalism to the piece, but it gives Iarla’s voice a chance to shine as he wraps himself around a poem by Michael Hartnett.
The Girl Who Broke My Heart is a short and sweet exploration of the harmonic possibilities of the fiddle and hardanger, which despite it’s title is actually quite jaunty. It sets up the following Freedom / Saoirse perfectly, as the song is the most expansive piece so far. Interestingly the lyrics are adapted from Irish poet Seán ó Riordáin’s Saoirse, and apparently speak of the struggle between individuality and serving a tribal code, which here is likened to the musical direction that The Gloaming are following and the divide between creative freedom and containment.
In the notes The Sailor’s Bonnet is dismissed as being almost ubiquitous, yet Martin still seems to energise the tune with the minimum of fuss and filigree and again it’s just about feel. The Old Bush is another matter entirely, with scrapes, drones and muted tones that eventually start to gather a head of steam. The hardanger starts to push the melody along, while Dennis provides steady repeated figure that develop an almost trance-like state.
[pullquote]The band’s show-stopper is next, with the expansive Opening Set giving everyone a chance to spread their musical wings[/pullquote]The band’s show-stopper is next, with the expansive Opening Set giving everyone a chance to spread their musical wings. From the opening with Iarla and Thomas again to the fore to breathtaking effect, first the hardanger answers, then the track starts to build around the core partnership and intuitive understanding of Martin and Dennis into a storming tune set, returning us to the old ways once more. But having done so they turn that on it’s head with a version of Hunting The Squirrel, taken far slower than you might expect combining fiddle and hardanger, with some big piano chords.
That just leaves the closing Samhradh Samhradh, another beautiful lilting song first documented around Dublin in the 1730s. It was written for the Gaelic festival known as Bealtaine, which takes place at the start of May and marks the beginning of summer. Here Iarla’s yearning vocal line is cut across by the staccato scrape of the fiddle and again there’s a mesmeric effect. The old world and the modern are brought together in unique and enticing way and the album gets a fitting finale.
Much of this album seems to be about touch and feel, there’s lightness, airiness and a sense of space to much of it, which only serves to enhance the drama of the climaxes when they come. In some ways that is down to the unusual combination of instruments, with the piano in particular adding a rare dynamic, but it’s also about the deep musical understanding shared by the players about the get-go and the let-go, the ebb and the flow. Yet despite all of the talk of minimalism this is a sumptuous feast of a record, full of subtlety and nuance, micro details that reveal themselves with each repeated play, but will have you hooked from the first spin.
This is a record alive with a spiritual connection to the past and the possibility of a limitless musical future. The Gloaming, after all is the twilight, the world between worlds, where neither night nor day have their dominion. It’s a time of shadow and mystery, between the last echo of the setting sun and the rising of the first stars, mysterious and otherworldly but above all, profoundly beautiful.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Gloaming – Samhradh Samhradh (Live in Cork)
The Gloaming – The Sailor’s Bonnet (Live in Cork)
The Gloaming’s debut album is released on 20th January which coincides with a short run of concerts at Celtic Connections, Sage Gateshead, The Union Chapel and NCH Dublin (which has already sold out), details are below. The album is also the first release of 2014 for Real World Records who enter their 25th anniversary.
The Gloaming Tour Dates
22 January – Glasgow City Hall (Album Launch at Celtic Connections)
23 January – The Sage Gateshead
24 January – London Union Chapel
26 January – Dublin National Concert Hall (SOLD OUT)