It’s said that opposites attract. In the music industry the maxim has often been proved right, but perhaps never quite as emphatically, or successfully, as with The Breath and their début album Carry Your Kin. The opposites in this instance are Irish singer / flautist Ríoghnach Connolly and Manchester based guitarist / effects genius Stuart McCallum. In 2010 Stuart, the man responsible for the complex and atmospheric guitar sound you can hear in the The Cinematic Orchestra‘s music, had a collection of new material and was in search of a voice to do it justice; which is when he discovered Rioghnach’s incredible talent. Ríoghnach’s sultry vocals are usually to be found gracing the music of Manchester’s exuberant folk-hoppers Honeyfeet. Having contributed to a wide range of projects, most recently she’s been an integral part of Afro Celt Sound System‘s hugely successful return to the fore with The Source.
A skilled and imaginative guitarist and master of electronica, Stuart McCallum’s music hovers around those undefined areas where acoustic and electric sounds overlap, where seemingly opposed genres find space within each other’s sonic structures and flourish as expansive, hypnotic soundscapes. Ríoghnach worked with Stuart on the material he’d been writing, and although both were keen to follow the collaboration through to some serious studio work and live performances, Stuart’s songs just didn’t seem to fit the bill. There was, however, an empathy that both felt was worthy of further exploration. They decided on a collaborative writing approach that, in the end, took over five years of writing, rehearsing and performing to evolve into the songs that would eventually become Carry Your Kin.
As the album opens with the rich bass beats of Harvest, it’s clear that there’s more to The Breath than the productive rapport established by Connolly and Stewart. The bass and beats come courtesy of Robin Mullarkey, who’s provided bass for McCallum’s solo work, and Cinematic Orchestra drummer Luke Flowers. Both provide a substantial platform for the complex layers of Ríoghnach’s soft vocal. As McCallum’s guitar and Cinematic Orchestra cohort John Ellis‘s keyboards build atmosphere, amid soaring strings, the song is injected with increased pace and fervour for the chorus.
The land was not enough, enough to keep you…
The land is all you’ll have, all you’ll have to meet you.
Harvest encapsulates what is so immediately engaging about Carry Your Kin. McCallum’s electronic wizardry provides a nurturing base for Connolly’s cathartic lyrics, and for the wonder of her voice. Wide harmonics are established by the additional keyboards and growing intensity from the percussion. The individual details that could so easily have landed like so many oily colours on a watery surface have been fused into a perfectly balanced colourwheel thanks to the mixing talent of Tchad Blake. Blake’s extensive credits include Joseph Arthur‘s astounding new album, The Family, Peter Gabriel‘s album of distinctive cover versions, Scratch My Back, and Seth Lakeman‘s Heart’s & Minds.
The title track, Carry Your Kin, employs, lyrically, the same ancestral voices Ríoghnach called upon for the album’s opening. The song has a more gentle approach; with vocal, acoustic guitar and piano providing the bulk of its echoing voices. Those voices still echo through time, a feeling enhanced by the repeated musical phrasing of the verses, telling us that Carry Your Kin is no chance soundbite – it’s an obligation carried in the heart and soul, passed from mother to daughter; it’s a life-giving ideology that was born of necessity in Ríoghnach Connolly’s family generations ago. It’s a means of survival.
The same acoustic tones pervade the haunting beauty of For You, but the addition of light electric guitar and soft percussion slip patches of light between the complexity of the vocal layers. The repeated refrain of For You seems to echo through lonely hills, as the song moves onto something really quite extraordinary that can either wash over you, or totally enthral. Just two words, over and over, but with a thousand voices, over percussion, guitars and keys that seem to roll around those same hills. Beautiful. Really, really beautiful.
And the magic continues.
The Toll opens with a similar guitar and percussion combination as the opening for The Harvest. Ríoghnach’s halting vocal is at its purest and most hypnotic, then the despair in the final line of the chorus is echoed by a surge of strings and electronics. Equally dream-like, the vocal layers are emboldened by the intensity of the percussion in This Dance is Over, with a folk-rock melee of electric guitar, drums and vocal to close.
The more relaxed structure of Our Own Way is inhabited by McCallum’s stark atmospheres and a vocal that, at times, is almost declaimed. Ambience plays just as important a role in the overall sound as the vocal, and in Boat Song Ríoghnach returns to ancestral voices. As tension and fear haunt the keyboards and strings; heavy weather drives the drums.
pray keep them safe, let them be unafraid
for dark are the hearts that take them to their graves
Inspired by bloody legends of the Belgian city’s origins, Antwerp has a more definite groove about it and makes the most of Ríoghnach’s bluesy vocal in its most recognisable form. Those mesmerising melismatic tones can enslave the senses just as much as the irresistible rhythm. Tremelone closes the album with a more gentle approach to the syncopated guitar and percussion, along with layers of vocal that soften stark reality to fear-filled dream-sequences…
so wrap your baby up and run
into the cold dark night
hot flashes guide your way now
into another storm
Although Carry Your Kin is essentially an acoustic album based on traditional song styles; the approach to recording is modern to the core, and has allowed The Breath to carry those elements into 21st Century musical structures. The bewildering complexity in the layers of vocal contrast beautifully with the starkness of John Ellis’s minimalist piano. The string section provides a voice that’s used liberally, but never stridently, always in support of the underlying atmospheres and emotions. From the quiet, understated splendour of Carry Your Kin, to the sonic majesty of For You; The Breath have achieved a harmonious alliance between contrasting elements that rolls across the senses like clouds caress low hills – always moving, changing, evolving; and utterly fascinating.
Carry Your Kin is released July 8th via Real World Records
The Breath Live Dates
31ST JULY – WOMAD FESTIVAL, UK
Charlton Park, Wiltshire
25TH OCTOBER – LIVERPOOL, UK