It’s rare the album that can effectively unite official Ireland with the kinds of people who normally critique rock albums, but The Gloaming’s debut effort pulled it off. The group have played for Elizabeth II, and sold out nights in the NCH and far beyond. While they were at it, their eponymous record picked up the Choice Music Prize for 2014, beating off the advances from the likes of Hozier and U2. Not bad for a slice of the old diddley-eye, eh?
Of course, ‘The Gloaming’ was as far from the hackneyed popular perception of Irish traditional music as Jeb Bush is from the American presidency. Sublimely integrating the staples of the traditional spectrum with the conceptual notions of modernism and post-rock (they’re named for a Radiohead song, don’t you know?), the album was unlike much else before or since.
It mightn’t be a surprise, then, to see that they’ve managed to do it again. Eschewing the demand for an imaginative album name or an easily-interpreted cover, ‘The Gloaming 2’ is another statement of the group’s unique artistic vision. Subverting, reorienting, and refashioning their musical heritage at every possible turn, The Gloaming have again put out a cover album of several centuries’ worth of artistic history. Reworking trad standards in a way that aligns perfectly with their own sensibilities as artists, they move beyond such banal ideas as ‘updating’ a tradition – as if tradition was something so malleable as to be hacked away at from the outside until it’s able to shift a few records. Rather, such is their virtuosic skill and their thorough understanding of that tradition, it isn’t a stretch to say that they absolutely embody it.
Take The Pilgrim Song, the opening salvo in a volley of four condensed epics which start the album off. A four-note, arpeggiated piano figure starts off in the nothingness, more John Cage than Ronnie Drew. Soon, the voice of Iarla Ó’Lionáird comes into this attenuated landscape, while the sounds of Caomhín Ó Raghallaigh’s fiddle are little more than suggested. Soon, as the musical architecture is slowly erected, layer upon layer of music climb to the final culmination of an idea. When the main melody, the most ostentatiously ‘trad’ piece of the equation enters the fray, as so often with the Gloaming, there seems to be at least one degree of separation between the heritage it’s plucked from and the result as heard on record. This is to much Irish dance music as Francis Bacon’s paintings are to the human form.
Fáinleog takes a similar tack. Martin Hayes’ fiddle, not sounding quite the same as you’d imagine fiddles are supposed to, duets with Thomas Bartlett’s piano over deconstructed pieces of musical phraseology, before Ó’Lionáird joins in over the top. On The Hare and elsewhere, as with most good traditional music, the simplest musical building blocks are expertly put together to construct veritable cathedrals of sound. Piano chords and the most laid-back fiddle line combine in sublimity while a second fiddle arcs over the silence, to astounding effect. The group are as much concerned with the silence as the sound, and both are placed exactly where they need to be.
To be sure, a few tracks could be accused of engaging with the same idea. One or two, fine pieces of music all of them, could have been cut from the final album to no great loss, if only to benefit the album as a whole rather than because the songs are actually lacking. It might seem to get a little bogged down to someone unfamiliar with what the group are doing. Taken as individual works, though, there’s barely any let-up in standard.
Any number of examples could be called upon to demonstrate the flirting with genius that defines this project. On Cucanandy, Ó’Lionáird starts off in Irish before the instrumentation eases itself into the fray. The heart-rending fiddle line and the pointillist dabs of piano mesh perfectly with the vocals, which at one point seem to enter in the middle of an idea at no loss to the song. As is apparent on Casadh An tSúgáin, there is an intimacy to his voice and it’s nearly hard to reconcile with the power of it. The Old Favourite perfectly brings together the slightly unusual and avant-garde with the very foundations of the artists’ musical inheritance, the ‘traditional’ elements of the music submerged beneath the waves and currents of everything else that’s going on. Despite the track’s name, it’s probably safe to reckon that it’s never been heard quite like this before.
Maybe second-album syndrome doesn’t apply to conglomerations of traditional music heavyweights, but if it does then the Gloaming have a clean bill of health. For a second time, the vocabulary of the traditional music we thought we knew has been upended, rearranged, and reassembled in a different order, and in a completely different place. It isn’t for nothing that the Gloaming are gushingly called innovators and ground-breakers. They genuinely seem to bring traditional music down a path that isn’t all that familiar to it. What’s more, they’re succeeding. This isn’t at all to suggest that what we’re dealing with is a simple intellectual exercise, or a tentative academic excursion beyond the accepted boundaries of a genre. There is an urgency, a vitality, and above all a joy to the results of the five-piece’s endeavours. Working with the conventions of a tradition and re-moulding them in their own image, the results of the process are far more than interesting – at times, they’re positively brilliant.