It’s an odd thing, Strength NIA’s “werewolf pop.” Beats and bass give the songs on ‘Ulster Is Dance Master’ shape. Rory Moore chants and howls and sings about fairies and werewolves and the Troubles over a cheap Casio organ’s glitter. Imagine the weird kids at school tried to make a pop record, but couldn’t keep their love for The Mothers of Invention, and their own sheer oddness, from messing with the creative process. That’s what ‘Ulster Is Dance Master’ sounds like: pop music as seen from an askew, eccentric perspective.
Moore wrote these songs about growing up in Derry, where the “fairy folk” existed alongside the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, and the radio played pop songs on one wavelength and ugly, bloody tragedies on the next. It’s a unique perspective to see the world from, this place of mythology, politics, and pop culture, and it’s allowed Strength NIA to make a record that feels like an authentic, accurate look at that place and time. As Moore sings about his parents and “when I was wee,” you can almost see the dodgy wallpaper hanging in your granny’s sitting room behind flashes of the 6 o’clock news, daytime telly, and the Eurovision. Moore was a child when that was the state of the nation, and ‘Ulster Is Dance Master’ catches that naivety in its sharp grooves, shimmering keys, and the music’s honesty.
Donegal Sweetheart is old-time pop romance filtered through Devo, Suicide, and Talking Heads. Hospital Beds and Drugs could be a ‘60s teenage tragedy song about growing up in 1990s Northern Ireland. The honesty here is not the usual type. There’s no tortured singer making a series of soul-searing revelations. Rather, Strength NIA’s honesty is in how they capture the feeling of being a weird kid in the middle of the chaos and madness that passed for ordinary in Ireland. It’s in the flashes of melodic brilliance in Margaret and Dressing Up For the TUV, and in the angled organ chords that ring throughout all the songs, from the album’s beginning at The Greyhound Race, through the poetry and lunacy of 8p A Single and 2 Golf Balls, to the murkiness of Never Been To Belfast at the record’s end.
‘Ulster Is Dance Master’ is undoubtedly an odd listen. Any record about a childhood is bound to be. It is a time when the world consists of only a handful of places and people, but is filled with magic and fear in a way that adulthood is not. Strength NIA have captured both the magic and the terror in the beats and bass that give these songs their shapes, and in the mad poetry that colours them in, so we can see the truth of what growing up in ‘90s’ Northern Ireland was like.