Having had the great privilege to get excited about some truly outstanding progressive folk music from the Borders and in the process, praised both English and Scottish acts for pushing the boundaries and appeal of folk music, it’s great to report on some Irish music that is every bit as adventurous, exciting and unique. So unique are the Olllam in fact that the description of their sound offered on soundcloud of, “neo acoustic Celtic post rock,” may well be a genre that they occupy alone. You could of course argue that by bringing together the talent, musical imagination and diverse experience of the core trio of the olllam that something extraordinary was bound to happen. You’d be right too, as the record they have made together is something very special indeed.
In truth, the olllam are actually an Irish-American band and in their own way a super-group. The name derives from the bards of the old Irish kings, but the word ollam can simply and appropriately mean master or highest ranked. The extra L in their spelling represents the core trio of John McSherry and the Detroit natives Tyler Duncan and Michael Shimmin, three master musicians.
There’s an excellent short documentary video (watch it below) that explains how this Transatlantic partnership was forged and the special bond between Tyler and John that moved through fan worship to friendship and then mentoring and ultimately this collaboration. I was fortunate enough to catch up with John McSherry and he explained, “Yeah, we’d always been talking about doing something together over the years. Tyler would have been coming over to Ireland once a year maybe playing with his band Millish or other projects and we’d meet up here and there for tunes and craic. It was from one of these visits that we finally got the opportunity to write some tunes together. We had two or three free days and focused all our attention on composing. Tyler went back to the States and had the idea of bringing the great drummer, Michael Shimmin into the mix. It has proved to be a master stroke.”
I asked John if when they got together Tyler and he already had a vision of where their collaboration could go. He reveals that the album was always in their mind’s eye, telling me, “Before any of the melodies were composed, myself and Tyler discussed what we wanted to say with the album, how we wanted to approach the melody writing and what kind of sound we were after. Typically, in Irish music, tunes are put into ‘sets’ of two, three or more, each tune having a different mood or rhythm from the previous. We wanted to steer away from this approach and treat each track on the album as a piece on its own, like a song with verses, chorus’s, middle eights, outros and intros etc. We wanted the mood of each piece to rise and fall naturally”
[pullquote]There’s an edge of melancholy but the way the melodies of the pipes and whistles spiral give burst of sheer pleasure, like rays of sunlight bursting through storm clouds[/pullquote]This extended as far as the tunes themselves and he confirms my impressions, “If you notice, all of the tracks are minor(ish). There’s a dark and brooding feel throughout the album.” That goes a long way towards describing the sound, which has a haunted beauty. There’s an edge of melancholy but the way the melodies of the pipes and whistles spiral give burst of sheer pleasure, like rays of sunlight bursting through storm clouds. But that only gives you part of the story as there’s an infectious groove that also runs throughout. The complex rhythms keep changing the focus and attack allowing space and grace aplenty, yet the tunes develop like wordless songs and your imagination will run riot if you’ll let it. Then there’s the unusual combination of instruments, each plays its part with the Rhodes electric piano and the guitar finding their own space in the mix. Everything has its place in a skilful mix.
The Belll sets the standard, following from the brief and sparse Polllogue, it start with guitar and Rhodes chords, with whistles creating a lovely lilting air and the kick drum signalling a gear change around 35 seconds in. It’s worth mentioning the bass playing too and Joe Dart is probably the fourth member of the trio, as he plays throughout the record. Although the video suggests he came in when much of the rest of the structure of the tracks was already laid down, his inventive and funky style once more finds its own space and he makes a great contribution, melodically as well as rhythmically, but also adding to that sense of lyrical, almost narrative flow of the tunes. Take the breakdown in the middle of Three Signs Of A Bad Man and the way the track build back up again, teasing before hitting its fuzzed out climax. It’s utterly thrilling stuff.
While the whistles and pipes draw their breath from the tradition and the complexity of the jigs and reels that John and Tyler have grown up playing, the arrangements provide very different setting for the swirl and skirl of their melodic invention. The Devilll For My Hurt, with it’s impossible staccato rhythms has a modern jazz feel, while The Follly Of Wisdom has something of the blissed-out post rock vibe and motorik beat accenting the two and four.
[pullquote]Everything was done over the internet. I’ve a small studio in my house where I recorded my parts and Michael and Tyler recorded their parts in Michael’s basement in the states[/pullquote]The video shows the olllam at work, with Tyler and John connected over Skype, but the recording sounds so seamless, it’s hard to imagine that it was completed this way. John assures me it was, however, “No. Everything was done over the internet. I’ve a small studio in my house where I recorded my parts and Michael and Tyler recorded their parts in Michael’s basement in the states. Michael and Tyler would be getting grooves together and we’d all be hooked up together via Skype, swapping ideas and passing files back and forth. It was a very new experience for all of us. We were all nicely surprised at how smoothly it worked. Everything, the melodies and arrangements just grew organically.”
The post-rock vibes continue through The Tryst After Death, another track that builds to a big chord driven climax. After a gentle intro, Bridge Of Glllass slips back into a motorik pattern, but once again the whistle dances around a melody – it’s head back eyes closed blissful stuff. It seems an odd term to use in the context, but there just seems to be so much soul in playing, that every track finds a way to spike the emotions and tingle the spine. All but the Prolllogue and one other are over six minutes long, which gives each track the room to develop and the ambition is matched by a combination of great composition and brilliant playing throughout.
With gigs imminent, the olllam have expanded to a six piece line up in order to represent what they have recorded. As Jon explains there hasn’t been much time to rehearse but he has total faith in the others as he tells me, “Well, all the rest of the guys are from the States so it’s pretty hard to hook up for rehearsals. Each of us would be working the material up on our own before touring. It’s funny, as soon as we get together everything seems to click naturally into place. The rest of the guys are such great musicians. There’s Joe Dart on Bass who is just phenomenal. Joe and Michael have a great connection together on bass and drums. When they jam together it’s just breathtaking. Then there’s Theo Katzman on guitars and Woody Goss on keys, two unbelievably talented musicians. Actually Joe, Theo and Woody make up three quarters of the hugely successful YouTube Funkadelic band Vulfpeck. Check them out, they are superb!” I can’t wait for the chance to see the olllam, when they appear in London on the 20th.
[pullquote]…the silence that follows it’s conclusion is almost unbearable. It seems only sensible to start at the beginning and play it all again[/pullquote]Prayer For Tears, acting as a slower paced dramatic closer, has such elegiac beauty that the silence that follows it’s conclusion is almost unbearable. It seems only sensible to start at the beginning and play it all again. The good news is there will be a follow up and John reassures me, “Of course there will. We’re already in the process.” But that’s not all as he reveals, “Well, I also play with the Irish traditional outfit, ‘At First Light’. I’m working on a new album with them as well as a new solo album. So keeping pretty busy.”
Perhaps we will come to each of those in their turn, but for the moment the olllam have my total attention for their debut. It’s a stunner that works on every level, the writing, the musicianship, the arrangements and ultimately the listening experience. With its roots in the jigs and reels of the Irish this is music that knows no boundaries, not even the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Their website even offers two remixes form Robert Lux and The Reverb Junkie. The latter has actually worked with Tyler in his band Ella Riot and even turns Prayer For Tears into a song, vocals and all. The possibilities are seemingly limitless, but believe me when I say the olllam are absolllutely brillliant.
Review by:Simon Holland
Creating .the olllam. (Documentary)
January 17 – Belfast, Ireland – Club Sasta
January 18 – Glasgow, Scotland – Celtic Connections
January 19 – Liverpool, UK – Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
January 20 – London, UK – The Borderline
January 21 – Manchester, UK – Band On The Wall
January 22 – Clonakilty, Co. Cork, Ireland – De Barra’s
January 23 – Dublin, Ireland – Temple Bar TradFest (wsg Padraig Rynne)