Album Review / Brian Ó hEadhra & Fiona MacKenzie: Tuath – Songs of the Northlands

…and now for something completely different? The answer is a resounding ”yes” but only if you are not familiar with this innovative team’s previous album, Tìr: Highland Life & Lore, from two years ago.

Both Ó hEadhra and MacKenzie are proven and established Celtic musicians who, with Tìr, broke some serious ground with a heady combination of Celtic trad, modern folk, world music, electro fusion and ambient, all integrated into something I had never really heard before. It was an enchanting album, not easy to really get into very quickly but one that I came back to almost every day. Now, it is one of my permanent favorites.

Tuath is very much a continuation of its predecessor, even down to a bold, almost heraldic mythical-beast-in-digital cover art. But it does stretch the concept just that critical bit to make it an evolution instead of just a sequel.

As the title implies, we are not grounded in the Highlands this time, and the concept of the Northland is taken liberally here. Tuath incorporates not only the music but also languages of Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and even Galicia, the historically Celtic region of Spain; as it’s in the northernmost strip of Spain, it can be called a northland in this context.

The layers of sound vary from very – sometimes deceptively – simple (the tender Na Fir-chlis or the old Danish hymn Gudfader vil ja priza) to a complex array of multilayered vocals and fierce trance electronics of Rosa das Rosas. The soundscapes are no simple ”let’s put some digital to folk music” hooks but intricate and singular constructions throughout the album. A friend of mine who is a top-notch classical singer and tech nerd in one person was quite impressed, and for good reason.

But all this would come to nought were it not for the artists’ strong presence and human touch in their vocal and instrumental performances. And they complement each other brilliantly: Fiona’s intensity (in Rosa das Rosas chant-like singing it’s almost chilling) is counterbalanced by Brian’s gentle voice, and together they are just brilliant. The tunes are both old and new, each firmly anchored in its home country’s tradition and sensibility, no matter how surprising the arrangement.

As its predecessor, Tuath may take a moment to settle with you. But take some time, let it sink in and do put on your better headphones – this audio labyrinth is best navigated with good equipment. What O’ hEadhra and Mackenzie are doing is not only great music; they seem to be on a rare mission to create their very own, bold vision of this particular tradition. What they have so far come up with is challenging, and it is gorgeous.

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