An (almost) epic Irish double feature: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Seo Linn

As dedicated and committed as Ireland is to her traditional music, Irish folk and trad musicians do move with the times. It’s been a great couple of days listening to two very different albums by Irish artists with their own vision.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s Róisín ReImagined was released a few months ago already and I missed her performance at Celtic Connections (the CC curse: too many amazing gigs happening at the same time), so this was my first contact with the album that’s already been praised pretty much all over.

In case you didn’t know, Róisín is her project to revive and re-interpret some of the treasures of the sean nós, the traditional Irish song. The album info says that it’s ”an exciting new project that pairs her peerless vocals with fresh orchestral arrangements of sean nós songs … Roisin Reimagined explores the connections between classical and traditional music, and reimagines these timeless songs for a new era.”

So the songs may be centuries old but the arrangements and the approach are modern. But not ultra-modern: there are no synths or sequencer loops here. Instead, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra accompanying her singing, the sound of Róisín ReImagined echoes film scores and musicals on one hand, and something more trance-like and minimalist on the other (Adiemus, perhaps?), settling into neither territory completely.

The absolute star and wonder here is Muireann herself. She has, of course, long been acknowlegded as one of Ireland’s most cherished singers and I have admired her music for years, but here she simply outdoes herself. Her voice is both soothing and gentle and, the same time, commanding and full of inner force, her lower register especially impressive.

And, dear lord, how effortlessly she sings the complex, very intricate vocal ornamentations that are the signature of the sean nós style – it is simply breathtaking. I am in complete awe of her performance here; I think anyone who sings for either fun or daily income and wants to get better at it should be inspired by her and this album.

But in all honesty I have to admit I have some reservations over the decisions made regarding the orchestral arrangements. The orchestra plays fabulously and the production is brilliant, rich and vibrant, let me make that clear.

It’s just that so many arrangements of the songs are slow, stately and have this polished Hollywood feel. When you have a few of them back to back (the first more energetic piece is track #5, Cailín na nÚrla Donn) and most of them are 5-6 minutes long, the listener may have to keep their mind from wandering a bit – I admit that happened to me a couple of times… Thank God, there is always her presence and force to keep one’s attention alert all the way through.

But that’s a minor complaint when the album is more than brilliantly performed and produced and, I am sure, will inspire many people to hear these songs also in their ”old forms” and learn about the history of this tradition. I know I will do some web searching and reading and listening over the next few days!

From another corner of modern(ized) Irish music comes Seo Linn, a band whose 2017 debut album Solas I just wrote about a week ago! I knew the awaited second album was soon to be released but didn’t realize it was this soon 😄

This quick return to the band is actually a case of good timing because I was acutely interested in hearing what happens to their music over a five-year period that has included a global pandemic and lockdowns…

I wrote about Solas that it was a perfect feel good, ”everybody jump now” album with only a couple of slower tunes. As the brand new Anuas opens, the beat is again massive and there’s a chorus fit for yelling together (if you speak Irish), but there’s a more organic groove in the percussion, the arrangement is more layered and there are unexpected breaks and sections. Danceable, yes, but also instantly more interesting than the material on Solas.

As Anuas progresses, the promise of the opening track is very much fulfilled, and then some. Almost all tracks are traditional, with only one completely original. Two or three tunes were familiar even to me; anyone who actively listens to Celtic music knows Síuíl a Rún and Óró Sé do Bheatha ’Bhaile.

To their huge credit, I have to say Seo Linn make the tunes sound as if they had written them themselves. The level and scope of ideas and variation on Anuas is far removed from the more straightforward blast of its predecessor, and the band weaves very nice textures and dynamics into the tunes; the acoustic instruments dominate and the steady bass drum beat is now largely absent. The music ebbs and flows instead of pounding on, but there’s also so much fresh energy in it.

It’s entertaining and it’s also interesting; I had such a good time listening to it for the first time. I’m particulalry fond of Fionnghuala with its ”little brook to a raging rapids” structure; the way Molly na gCuach (melody by the late, brilliant Eithne Ní Cuallachaín) tells it story in various musical ways; the vocal harmonies and tranquil atmosphere of Mo Ghile Mear. And the old war horses I mentioned earlier are given a healthy new life, too. At times, it’s almost epic.

My extra yay! goes to the lead vocals of Stiofan Ó Fearail, whose strong and melodic voice carries all the tunes effortlessly. A very strong performance 👍

Seo Linn’s debut proved that the band has a lot of talent but much of it was still under the surface at that point. On Anuas, it’s come to bloom and the results are great. Sláinte guys!

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