“Everything in the Universe is in a state of vibration. Every leaf, atom, planet, galaxy and every cell in our body is humming its own tune”.
John McSherry found inspiration for his second solo album, The Seven Suns, among Ireland’s ancient sites, fascinating legends and even sacred geometry. He uses those compelling influences to celebrate the ancient knowledge of Western Europe’s megalithic civilizations in a collection of his own compositions that lead us on a Faerie dance through Ireland’s ancient kingdoms, the legends that grew from them, and the megaliths that leave tantalizing clues of their wisdom.
John’s reputation as an innovator on whistles and uilleann pipes is second to none. A founder member of bands such as Lúnasa, Tamalin and Dónal Lunny’s ‘Coolfin’, famed for their contemporary approach to traditional musical forms; John has also led the way in more explorative projects, finding eager audiences for his work with The Soma Band, At First Light, Ulaid and The Olllam. In his second solo album, he leads a re-discovery of Ireland’s special significance in the ancient world, and the barely understood wisdom locked in its megalithic monuments.
The Seven Suns opens with an introduction to the origins of Ireland’s Faerie folk – the Sidhe, or Síog. Opening to the driving rhythm of Seán Óg Graham‘s guitar, the tune set Dance of the Síog includes a wonderful slip-jig John regularly plays with Belfast piper Francis McIlduff and provides an immediate sense of something a little different explored with amazing craft. There’s a wildness in the pipes, a wistfulness in the low whistle, only just held in check, for the Samhain Faerie dance. Later in the album, another ancient festival is celebrated with a more measured beat as John’s pipes sing a song of celebration for Sunrise at Bealtaine. With glorious harmonies from the low whistle, there’s a hint of the European medieval about this joyful welcome to the day. Evoking the fire festival at Beltany Stone Circle, the whistle intertwines her own steps with the pipe’s lead, as both quietly rise in exaltation.
A gentle guitar and whistle duet opens John’s tribute to County Sligo’s 6000-year-old Carrowmore, a complex and fascinating array of chamber tombs, ring forts, cairns and passage graves. The opening air evokes the heartening calm wrought by wild open spaces, taking you to a green hillside. Pipes carry the melody for a flight on the wind before returning to inspire the whistles subtle harmonies.
The legends surrounding Ireland’s antiquities aren’t only about the faeries and the festivals; they’re about the kings, heroes, and adventurers who peopled those legends. John can never resist linking the ancient kingdoms of Ireland to his own family, and in The King of Dal Buinne that link is celebrated in the most remarkable style. The guitar-backed mellow whistle tones of the opening are nonetheless lively, as Seán’s percussion heralds the pipe’s arrival for a duet. There’s more percussion in a soul-stirring cello from Sean Warren. A quiet phase leaves space for electric guitar as cello thrums are serenaded by a hushed whistle. An inspired track – full of innovation and excitement.
There are more surprises in Sunset Land. As a deep, bowed bass opens over a wail of pipes and electric guitar echoing among tide-weathered rocks; whistle sends out a sleepy melody, like a beacon piercing the night. It discovers, in time, a lively pipe and guitar willing to share a fire lit dance. The whistle takes the hint and joins in, before leading them all off into a fiery reel that, with the right fuel, could go on through to the dawn. Part of this tune set celebrates the beautiful symmetry of snow crystals and the universal resonance that forms them. In the following set, The Golden Mean, there’s another nod to natural geometry with a flavour of ancient tradition in a contemporary setting. Opening with Steal The Piper (the wee folk could never keep their hands off a good piper) the set moves on to a reel as bright as a Faerie Queen’s eyes and closes with layers of whistles celebrating that Golden Mean of natural maths.
The Atlantean explores the legends that link Europe and North Africa’s profuse and widespread ancient megaliths to the fabled sunken paradise. A bluesy guitar introduction leads to a joyful stomp in misty darkness. In contrast, The Whisperer is a soft, delightful air featuring Michael McGoldrick on flute backed by a gentle guitar. Among ancient carvings in one of the 30 or so passage tombs at Loughcrew, you’ll find ‘The Whispering Stone,’ aligned with sunrise at the ancient festivals Samhain and Imbolc. The melody that celebrates the mystical stone is joined by beautiful harmonies that soar above the main melody, like a wind among snow covered peaks, before myriad layers of whistle brings the tune to a close as complex and fascinating as the ancient carvings that surround The Whispering Stone.
The Stone of the Seven Suns opens with Naoise’s Waltz, referencing a hero of my own favourite legend – The Children of Uisneach, in a timeless pipe and whistle duet before The Seven Suns presents a more contemporary outing as mysterious and as impressive as the carved stone at Dowth it celebrates.
To bring the album to a close, The Cloghole offers a light and breezy opening reel that, with the addition of pipes and a kick in the pace, moves on to a delightful pub session reel and concludes with The Boyne Waves, celebrating the acoustic properties of some of Ireland’s most famous ancient sites, in the Boyne Valley.
The Seven Suns is replete with the wisdom wrought in a time when humanity existed in tune with nature, rather than in dominion over it. There are legends, ideas and timeless rituals to explore. Above all, though, there is enthralling music. Among John McSherry’s masterful airs, reels, jigs, and atmospheres, Seán Óg Graham‘s guitar keeps a perfect rhythm throughout. His gently expressive and thoroughly dependable multi-instrumental expertise was recently highlighted in our review of Beoga’s latest album (reviewed here). Joining John and Seán on The Seven Suns is fellow Beoga member Niamh Dunne, whose contributions on violin and viola add depth and colour that merges perfectly with John and Seán’s arrangements. The concept that underpins The Seven Suns, though, provides an added, irresistible pull. From the venerable grandeur of stone monuments to the intricate, spellbinding symmetry of a snowflake. From archaic rites to age-old heroes; The Seven Suns celebrates and encapsulates the wonders of Ireland’s enduring mysteries, by bringing their spirit to the present day and into the future.
The Seven Suns is Out Now via Compass
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