Four years ago I interviewed Iarla Ó Lionáird, following the release of his utterly compelling album, Foxlight. During the interview (which you can read here) he talked about his inaugural performance with The Gloaming: Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. Initially the sound wrought by this meeting of musical minds was at the very least, enticing. There was no way of predicting, however, just what an exceptional musical force was gathering. The exuberance of the reaction to their first album, released on Real World Records in January 2014, was only matched by the universal acclaim for their live performances. And so the inevitable question is: how do you follow such a resounding success? Throughout 2015 The Gloaming have been adding to their repertoire and refining those performances on the live stage. The result is their second studio album, 2.
In 2, tales from the dark ages, contemporary poetry, songs and melodies passed from hand to hand, soul to soul are the raw material subjected to The Gloaming’s singular, mesmerising alchemy. And those ancient influences are apparent form the very first moments, as Thomas Bartlett’s steady piano introduces the archaic sound of Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh’s hardanger in The Pilgrim’s Song. Iarla Ó Lionáird’s inspiration for the song is to be found in two poems by Seán Ó Riordáin. From the outset his impossibly slow and steady vocal displays the same astounding level of control his listeners have come to recognize. It’s a clock ticking, a mind wandering, a soul waiting. And as the intensity builds, Martin Hayes’ fiddle dances alongside the increasingly urgent piano with perfect precision.
Iarla’s voice seems to span centuries and is clearly just as adept at presenting modern poetry as it is ancient legend. There’s a dark intensity as hardanger and piano open Fáinleog (Wanderer), then Iarla’s vocal joins to sooth their fervour with an ancient tale of magic. Pacified – guitar, fiddles and piano embark on a dance as light and graceful as the swallow of the song’s name.
“Circling aloft, girded by sky
The air sang itself”.
(Translation: Iarla ó Lionáird)
The musical, as well as oral, traditions of Ireland are also in safe, skilled hands. A slip jig that’s been a popular part of the Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill’s repertoire for some time is introduced ever so gently and at a pace that’s more in line with a Strathspey of the Scottish tradition. In a few minutes, however, the tempo for The Booley House heads steadily towards the jig with fiddles paired, guitar keeping the pace and piano providing the bass notes. In another well-known jig, Repeal The Union, Thomas Barlett takes on the role of bass once again, with rhythm and tone to match the very finest upright bass accompaniment. Both provide a hint of the intense energy that’s part of every performance by The Gloaming, whether on stage or in the studio.
That remarkable force is epitomized as The Rolling Wave provides the raw material for one of the album’s more extensive adventures. The jig itself plays host to Bartlett’s minimalist piano initially, Caoimhin’s hardanger comes alongside and both gather confidence and vigour as the jig’s refrain stays true under Martin’s steady hand. Then suddenly we’re led down a different path. During a brief interlude piano and hardanger seem to mourn the fiddle’s departure, then exalt in its return with a new melody, a new purpose. Bursting with flourishes, the new melody is explored to the full.
The fiddle sets the standard again in Mrs Dwyer’s Hornpipe, while piano takes control of pace and Caoimhin tempts a sound that’s almost woodwind from his hardanger. There’s a dance in there before long, though; a gentle reel that’s emboldened by the power of that hardanger and piano combination. The Gloaming don’t depend entirely, though, on the peaks and troughs of their seemingly limitless inventive capacity. The Hare is simple and elegant as fiddle soars behind the husky breathlessness of the hardanger.
But it’s those songs that haunt the senses. In another visit to the Ireland’s ancient stories, Oisín’s Song opens with an elegant, gentle guitar solo from Dennis Cahill. Iarla’s vocal invocation ranges from trembling bass notes to angelic alto in a song of the great warrior poet. In contrast, the childish simplicity of the ‘dandling’ song Cucanandy is reflected in the gorgeous, lilting vocal, supplemented by the understated beauty of Thomas’s piano. The melody is then placed in a wider frame by fiddle and hardanger and its mix of English and Gaelic vocal taken into the ether. The late Bess Cronin was one of the best known resources for the traditional Irish songs collected by Alan Lomax in the 1960’s. She was also Iarla’s great aunt; and it’s from this impeccable source that the song comes. Iarla revives the haunting performance of Casadh an tSúgáin (The Twisting of The Hayrope) he made in John Crowley’s film, Brooklyn, last year. That unaccompanied performance gains added texture with a steady build up from piano initially, then more of Thomas Bartlett’s subtle textures
The Gaelic language, from both sides of the Irish Sea, also has laments and songs of regret in abundance. They are among the most beautiful songs ever performed, but among this bountiful repository, some shine brightest. Slán le Máighe (Farewell to Maigue) was written by 18th Century poet, Aindrias Mac Craith. This heart rending song of parting delivered beautifully by vocal and piano, with hardanger as a plaintive refrain is unmatched.
Och, ochón is breoite mise
Gan chuid, gan chóir, gan chóip, gan chiste
Gan sult, gan seoid, gan spórt, gan spionnadh
Ó seoladh mé chun uaignis
Oh it is ill I am
Without a share, or right, or company, or money
Without happiness, or jewels, or sport, or vitality
Since I was sent into loneliness
The album seems, at first, to come to a restrained close – in The Old Favourite there are no wide explorations of multi-tonal possibilities, no hypnotic piano sequences, no veering off into additional reels and jigs. The Old Favourite, however is far more subtle than first impressions might indicate. It’s a full stop deployed on a page in the most elegant and artistic of scripts; it’s a gentle wind that transforms a falling leaf into a tumbling cascade of light and colour; it’s sunlight dancing on a gentle ripple of sea bed viewed through the water’s azure filter.
The songs can be powerful, and the voice that sings them is unique, but the instrumental tracks and sequences are just as varied, as complex and as arresting. One of the most surprising and satisfying aspects of The Gloaming’s music is how they can take the simplest or most familiar of themes and explore them during a journey that can delight and bewilder. It’s in the way songs build and fade – a gentle opening can lead to a full-force jig, a crescendo of vocal exultation or multi-textured exploration on piano and strings.
In 2, The Gloaming meet and exceed the expectations encouraged by their debut. It’s another enthralling, captivating interpretation of Irish tradition. For some reason it’s all rather emotional – that emotion tends to be joy, frequently mixed with wonder.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
2016 UK Tour
26 February London – Union Chapel – SOLD OUT
21 September Bristol – Colston Hall
22 September London – Royal Festival Hall
23 September Manchester – Bridgewater Hall
24 September Edinburgh – Usher Hall
25 September Birmingham – Symphony Hall