On the surface, Ulaid appears to be just another album teaming three celebrated Irish musicians on a succession of in-joke-ily-named tune-sets mixing traditional with self-penned material. And the word Ulaid (that bestowed on the people of early Ireland who gave their name to the province of Ulster), while appropriately indicating the musicians’ current domicile in Co. Antrim, doesn’t provide any clue that there will be anything different about the trio’s music. But from the start of play, you sense there’s a freshness, an open-air quality about the scheme of things, with playing that seems to deliberately take a step back – or is just more laid-back than we’re perhaps used to – towards a more fluid, on occasion even free-form, freewheeling expression of these age-old traditional modes.
Celebrated exponent of the uilleann pipes and whistle John and versatile fiddler and keyboardist (and record producer) Dónal have for some time been the creative force behind the innovative traditional band At First Light, while master guitarist Seán tours and records with the bands Beoga and Fiddlers’ Bid. Living in the same locality, they’ve got to become habitués of the Belfast session scene, so it was perhaps inevitable that they would come together at some stage to record. Theirs is a wholly confident yet gently expressed (even subtly underplayed) virtuosity, an inherently intelligent display of musicality that’s best illustrated perhaps by the effortless, naturally appointed blend of timbres that comes from responsive musicians who have clearly spent time in each other’s company and are aware of each other’s musical and artistic predilections, knowing just when to embellish a melody and when to rein back. For instance, passages of genial improvisation on guitar arise easily out of the dancing rhythms of John and Dónal’s instruments on Thady Casey’s reel (but this is in the spirit of ongoing exploration rather than “punching holes in the music”, I feel that phrase is probably more applicable to the frenetic close of Roll It There, Roisín!), and the sequence of lyrical and soulfully expressive (yet never overwrought) solos on the gorgeous air The Return To Madagascar is as uplifting as it is naturally conceived.
Listeners’ emotions are engaged in a way that’s rare amongst “tune-albums”, and on so many of the tracks here the mix of emotions is both complex and unexpected, with mood-swings that, like the playing itself, come naturally (there’s that word again…) and feel both welcome and right. The musicians also convince at a faster tempo, with some outstanding piping introducing the sparky syncopated rhythms of reel-set The Ramblers, while the creative animation of the set of polkas (track 8), first introduced on the guitar, rather justifies its title (No Room To Wriggle In The Cauldron). Finally, the conjoining of Breton and Asturian sources on the disc’s invigorating closing set (Lights Out At Five) proves infectious with its pairing of lilting waltz and spirited dance.
Ulaid is a very good example of a tune-based album that well bears somewhat closer scrutiny and modestly demands keen listening in order to reveal both the layerings and careful inner details of the arrangements. In fact, the relaxed yet distinctively boldly phrased playing might give rise to the coining of a new description for the trio’s music: “ulaid-back”… Seriously though, congratulations to all concerned on a distinguished release.
Review by: David Kidman
Out Now via Ceol. Order it via: Amazon