BAILER: “People Are Seriously Dissatisfied”

It’s been a wild time for Corkonian metallers Bailer, including a tour of Russia that provided an insight into social dissatisfaction and the world’s perceptions. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with guitarist Chris Harte.

Since emerging seemingly from out of nowhere in 2014, Leeside four-piece Bailer have been working constantly: a seemingly endless array of gigs, tours and festival/all-dayer appearances have been punctuated with steady releases of singles and extended-players, charting the development of the band’s hefty, grooving, hardcore-inflected strain of modern metal. The most recent of these extended-players, a self-titled affair released via Sligo-based Distroy Records, has seen them finally begin to break down some of the media barriers that have traditionally thrwarted Irish artists in the UK and continental Europe. Guitarist Chris Harte has been seeing the difference in recent months. “Yeah, the songs have gotten a good push from bigger metal outlets. We’ve been thrilled with the response so far, and it feels great. We’ve been touring this release more than our past E.P.s too, seeing new faces and meeting new fans every night we play, it’s awesome.”

Part of the touring for the record included an excursion to Russia for two weeks in February. A daunting task for any band on the basis of weather alone, the trip presented challenges to the Bailer lads on numerous fronts, even before political and world-affairs considerations surrounding the country’s government entered the discussion. “About this time last year, an offer came to us to tour there for two weeks. We’ve seen so many of our favorite bands go there in the past, and their shows always looked wild. We wanted to do the same, so we took the chance and it certainly paid off. It was a crazy experience, but the shows were incredible, and the culture was totally different. They don’t get a lot of bands like us touring there, so it meant a lot to people. Obviously, it had its hiccups: Lufthansa lost all our equipment on the way out there, and it took two days to get it back. But once we hit the road, we had an amazing time and played some of our best shows yet.”

Heading to a new country to play tunes for the first time is always a big deal for a band, and on a day-to-day basis, Harte and company were pleasantly surprised by the reaction they met from a metal audience that hasn’t necessarily been treated well by touring bookers in recent years. “Our songs went down really well over there, the crowds seemed to love high-energy, heavy music, and we certainly didn’t hold back on the performances after travelling all that way. People were queuing up for photos every night, and you could see how much it meant to them. We made sure to connect with as many people as possible online, on Instagram, as they have their own version of Facebook in Russia. Lots of them have been following us ever since.”

The experience of dealing with music fans at the other side of a social and political divide was especially poignant for the band, as recounted by a detailed post on the band’s social media as the dust was settling on the sojourn. Gig-goers and supporters of heavy music attending the band’s tour regularly asked them to take the message home that objections to Vladimir Putin’s rule and actions in recent years are shared equally among people on the ground in Russia. “That was pretty surreal on a humane level, those were some of the most powerful memories we took away from the tour. In a way, it was what we expected, since we were heading over to play underground hardcore shows, but it really stuck with us. I think it’s easy to see that people these days, from all over the world, are seriously dissatisfied with their governments and it’s no different in Russia. Western media would have us all believe they are a scary people who hate our guts, but it’s total bulls**t. Look at America’s government right now for god’s sake, politics are f**ked wherever you go.”

Upon arrival back home, Bailer found themselves on the cusp of cult recognition in the UK, with positive reviews and features in youth-oriented print magazines such as Kerrang! and Metal Hammer. Important mags for young rockers of yesteryear, yes, but facing the same challenges of any print-first media outlet, in addition to the overall crisis of mainstream relevance that heavy music faces amid a dearth of fresh bands to replace the stadium-fillers of the ‘90s. Regardless of the question marks, these features have given the band a bump across the water. “For us, it felt great to be in those magazines, even if only for the fact that we used to buy them all the time as teenagers, and we found out about so many bands that shaped our tastes in music through those mags. Nowadays it’s certainly not the same impact, as the internet has taken over and it’s just a totally different ball game now, but it’s still huge exposure, and they are still the biggest physical publications in our world of music right now. We’ve certainly seen a massive increase in streams and online followers since, and we’re working on getting over there for some good shows later this year to follow up on the exposure. Hopefully that’s just the start of it, now.”

Another set of questions hanging over music at present are those of sustainability and income. The industry overall is dealing with the extended transition from paid downloads to subscription streaming services, which have overtaken physical CD and vinyl sales in the past year in many markets. Having taken their own management in house, the band is using its knowledge of merchandise and vending of same, to help other artists with artwork and visual identity. Enter Absurd Merch, the band’s joint venture with their label. “Since becoming a member of the Distroy Records family, Alex, who runs the label, had been chatting to me a lot about his aspirations to start up a merch brand, operating within the metal and hardcore community. There is a big increase in the scene here in Ireland and around the world right now, and there are a lot of bands doing well. We set it up to help out bands working hard and looking to tour at home and abroad. We want to make things easier for these bands, and bring everyone together to benefit each other. It’s early days for us yet, but it’s looking good already and we have lots of plans in the pipeline.”

With a pair of Irish tours over with this year already, the band has a number of spot shows and festivals to keep them busy throughout the summer, before heading around the country again with UK outfit Palm Reader. Ireland has long been a quietly supportive country for heavy music, sustaining and nurturing a close-knit community in the process. “The Palm Reader tour kicks off in August, we know this is going to be another high-energy tour, and tickets are selling fast already. Ireland is certainly on the up-and-up for this kind of music, and as the quality, diversity of the bands and the venues continues to increase, more and more people are turning up at shows. I can’t wait to see what the scene will look like in another few years.”

In-between bouts helping reinforce the infrastructure of heavy music in the country, the band are keeping things ticking over before making big moves in the coming months, capitalising on the momentum that the band have worked diligently to build. “We’re doing a bunch of headline shows across Ireland over the next month until the end of June. In July we have Townlands Carnival and Knockanstockan Festival back to back before the Palm Reader tour kicks off in August. In between all of this we are writing away for our debut album, we won’t be sitting on this E.P. for too long. The next chapter is right around the corner.”

For more information on further dates, check out the band’s Facebook and Twitter pages. The band’s self-titled extended-player is available now across all downloading and streaming services.

Robocobra Quartet: “Violent, Dissonant Noises”

Belfast spoken-word/jazz/hardcore fusionists Robocobra Quartet have been blazing a trail over the past few years. With their second album on the way, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with bandleader Chris Ryan about experimentation, extremity and a filling station on the M6.

For artists, comparisons and references to admired figures can arguably create more trepidation than motivation. Once a revered name is uttered and invoked in connection with an upcoming band, it’s stuck in press releases, rehashed by gig promoters over social media, and used as an easy point of reference for journos and DJs with the luxury of a few minutes’ research ahead of features. Your writer has the unfortunate honour of laying this burden on Belfast outfit Robocobra Quartet. While not, in fact, a quartet, but an assembly of musicians available on a given night, this constant shifting of sonic tectonics merely adds to the band’s unpredictability, a jarring and exciting racket that spurred your scribe to refer to them, in passing, as ‘Fugazi meets Charles Mingus’ for a UK publication a number of years back. Second album “Plays Hard to Get” is due on vinyl and digital formats in May, and as we get settled into a chat, the well-mannered and decidedly chipper Chris Ryan, speechifying drummer and bandleader, relates, with a wry smile, how this designation followed them as far as college radio in the United States while on tour there.

But while it is exceptionally hard to not draw comparisons to sonic trailblazers past while pondering the angular, aggro jazz of Robocobra, the same seeming fluidity that applies to their musical broadsides extended across the range of their creative and production processes of their upcoming full-length. “There was definitely a much more blurred line between writing and recording on this one. Any time you commit something to recording, it always comes out a little different than imagined. In producing it, I wanted to respond to those changes and improvise just as much in the mixing & editing as the actual performing. When you leave things malleable, it allows for the musicians to respond strongly and take ownership over their performances.” Material that’s aired in the run-up to the new record’s release has seen the band extend its range and explore the weird Venn diagram of sounds and textures available to them, especially in terms of jazz instrumentation and arrangement. “That’s interesting, I think the album is just much more extreme in all directions. It has some of our most ‘jazz’ material, but also parts that are certifiably metal as all hell! It has some of the most gentle performances we’ve done but also some of the most dissonant violent noises we’ve ever made. Just a wider emotional-dynamic-range I guess.”

Themes of alienation, trepidation, etc. are holdovers from the band’s first record, the wonderfully-monikered ‘Music for All Occasions’, however – modernity in all its pettiness, distance and squalor is put through the filter of Ryan’s personality, experiences and spat-out verbiage throughout. While social commentary is no doubt at the heart of Robocobra Quartet’s music, the vitriol with which themes and concepts are thrown at the listener are from that certain place. “I find that I tend to get the most negative or dismal parts of my personality out through the lyrics, which kind of ‘cleanses’ me for real-life interactions, where I tend to be generally happy and polite. It’s hard to think about how something looks or feels when you’re in it, and even though the album is mastered and off to the vinyl plant, I still feel very much “in it”. Ask me again in about a year and maybe I’ll have a more eloquent response!” With ‘Music for All Occasions’ now firmly in the rear-view mirror for Ryan and associates, the conversation turns briefly to how he feels about the album now that he’s had some time to live with the finished product. Staying true to form and reflecting the band’s forward-looking nature, however, Ryan is eager to relate his experience with creating it to the grand vision he has for the new platter. “We definitely did that one a lot quicker than this record. There’s more of a simplicity to Music For All Occasions, but this album is much more layered. Some of my favourite albums offer you new things to hear with each listen, even after years. There’s a lot of the orchestration on this album that is somewhat buried, or momentary, to offer that kind of effect. There are drum machines, and string sections, and voices all over the place that are only really audible on headphones. Jeez… some mix engineer, eh?” (laughs).

The state of independent, experimental and otherwise ‘difficult’ music all over the island is one of rude health, across the genre spectrum. Hailing from a vital and busy Belfast scene that has carved a new identity for itself in recent years with precision post-punk and fearless experimentation, Ryan has a more nuanced take on the current upswing in noises and the people making them. “There are people doing beautiful things of their own volition all over the place, at all times. It’s usually the work of individuals with a will to make cool things, so I think it’s better to prop up those individuals, than thank the collective consciousness, which I think doesn’t really exist. Everything is in waves though, and I think even when things look terrible there are still people out there working hard and expressing themselves, always.” Off the back of the release of the new record, the band is touring the mainland UK and the continent throughout the summer, building on a live reputation that sees them neatly skewer the live demographics between the regular gig-going scene for noisy rock and the fringes of jazz festival infrastructure. Ryan is quite specific about his thoughts heading into the fray, traversing the line between sincerity and irony in fitting fashion. “There’s a really pretty petrol station in the north of England called Tebay Services on the M6 that is a little like paradise. That will be nice, especially in June which is when we’re on the UK leg. There are also a few venues/promoters that we’ve worked with a few times before so it will be nice to say hello again and see how they’ve grown and changed. We’re just dipping our toes into mainland Europe at the moment, but I’m told there’s more stuff coming up towards the end of the year which should be nice. They seem to pay us a lot of money in Europe and are extremely attentive audience members, so hoping for more of that.”

Robocobra Quartet’s new album, ‘Plays Hard to Get’, is available for preorder now from robocobraquartet.bandcamp.com in vinyl and digital formats.

The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock: ‘History Rarely Repeats, But Often Rhymes’

Retelling the story of the 1913 Strike and Lockout with an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be a big ask. Allen Blighe and Enda Bates of Dublin folk-rockers The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock discuss the endeavour.

For over a decade now, Dublin-based five-piece The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have been fusing the folklore and musical traditions of their home city with sounds and processes from further afield, with elements of drone and post-rock sitting alongside the foundations of folk and trad across their previous pair of full-length records. In addressing and recontextualising tradition during the ‘decade of centenaries’, though, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have set themselves some massive tasks in recent years. In 2013, the band undertook to document and chronicle the lived experiences of the hundreds of thousands of workers denied basic human rights in the 1913 Strike and Lockout. The final product, ‘Lockout’, is a concept album in four movements, finally releasing this March via Dublin/Sapporo label Transduction, after a number of live airings in the intervening years. Having lived with their work for a while, band founder/vocalist/lyricist Allen Blighe is content with the band’s work. “Initially it was planned as a short piece to tie into the Lockout anniversary but it grew legs! A lot happened, many were born, and many passed away in that time. We feel both happy and relieved to have created something original and ambitious, yet still quite cohesive.” Bassist/vocalist Enda Bates, himself no stranger to large-scale musical endeavours, expands on the size of the task at hand. “It was a big, complex project in all sorts of ways, both in terms of the writing and the production. We’re never stuck for ideas as a band, but the music does seem to take its own time. In the end, we’re very happy with the result and despite the logistical demands, it was really great working with an electric guitar orchestra.”

It goes without saying that anyone looking to tackle the story of the Strike and Lockout has their work cut out for them, being as it is an early milestone in modern Irish history, and in the story of organisation and struggle among the Irish working class. Taking a story with ramifications that lasted for generations, and that continues to reverberate in Irish society, and making of it a work for an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be demanding on storytelling, compositional and logistical levels, according to Bates. “We knew we wanted to tell the story of the Lockout chronologically, and Allen had a list of key events he wanted to cover in the narrative. So we developed a timeline for the piece based on that, and it seemed to fall naturally into four sections. We already had some fragments of music written that seemed to fit nicely with certain events, and I had an idea for the opening in which each guitar comes in string by string and builds to big crescendo before dropping back down to just Allen by himself. From then on we just worked through the timeline, sometimes arranging existing ideas for the orchestra, and sometimes writing new material to fit the narrative. The story of the Lockout contains moments of great hope and unity, but also plenty of violence and despair at times too. So musically we tried to represent this through very consonant material and this big, open C tuning on all the guitars, alongside some very dissonant rhythms and harmonies for the darker moments.”

In building a timeline to work along and tell stories across the duration of an album, Blighe is keen to outline the extent of research done on both the story’s main plot, and on concurrent events of the time, aiming to present a fuller picture of a society in turbulence. ”Much reading was done on the subject. Padraig Yeates’ excellent ‘Lockout: Dublin 1913′ was a big influence. Also, Jer O’Leary’s impassioned performances of Larkin speeches really struck a chord, if you’ll excuse the pun! There were many challenges in compressing such a complex story into an album. For example, we just didn’t have time to fit in anything on the controversy surrounding the so called “Dublin kiddies’ scheme”, where the church blocked efforts to send strikers’ children to sympathetic English families to escape the deprivation of the Lockout. Some other themes, such as those presented on “Suffrage”, part of the 4th movement, were important to include. This deals with the struggle for voting equality, and Markievicz’s legacy, one as chequered as many of her male contemporaries but judged more harshly for no other reason than her gender. Matching the music to the narrative was a really interesting process. In the past we’ve written the music first, and then found lyrical themes to apply. For this project we flipped that around, which was a rewarding change of approach.”

There’s obviously a great resonance to the story today, over a hundred years later, with the current cultural impasse at the top of Irish politics and a working situation getting ever tighter for countless people since the introduction of austerity. Blighe discusses the similarities. “The decade of centenaries has been an interesting time to reflect on what exactly Ireland is. Where 1916 and the war of independence were about the struggle for national sovereignty, the Lockout and the Civil War were struggles to define exactly what this nation might be. Things are much different now but as the saying goes ‘history rarely repeats but often rhymes’. The Lockout was a struggle for a fairer deal for workers against a very hostile and callous bunch of Dublin employers headed by William Martin Murphy, head of the DUTC, the tram company and owner of the Irish Independent, who enjoyed the tacit support of the law and state. Today we have a few similar characters. Ireland since the collapse has been murky to say the least, and there are many questions around banking regulation, the wind-up of Anglo, NAMA deals such as Project Eagle, the sale of Siteserv, the write-off of debt at INM, the constant policing scandals as the disclosure tribunal continues to unfold, and most importantly, the housing crisis. There is a sense that the gains of trade union movement are being systematically stripped back in the name of competitiveness in a system that exponentially breeds inequality.”

While that might seem grim, Blighe continues to outline what can be done domestically, and what lessons can be taken away from previous popular mobilisations. “Our fear is that if a positive left wing movement, in the mode of the Water protest movement is not enacted to deal with this inequality, then we will see a slide to the far right. Irish nationalism has always had an element of Connolly’s vision for social justice. The far right are chipping away at this, and the high level corruption and growing inequality feeds this. A cynic may say that power corrupts, and that a system needs corruption to function. While in the many snares of national debt, the overreliance of tax avoidance schemes etc., there may be no hope for huge change. However, while waiting for some broader international change, there is plenty we can be doing. The water movement proved that ordinary people can organise and effect change. The housing crisis must be dealt with in a similar fashion. We can do this with the same determination and belief if we try. In a similar fashion the political and legal corruption can be challenged successfully. These goals are pragmatic and realisable.”

Another anniversary dealt with in recent years is the Easter Rising, which the Spook tackled in a shorter-form piece, entitled ‘Bullet in the Brick’, also released via Transduction in 2016. Being that the label is based in Sapporo, Japan, it’s surely an odd arrangement to co-ordinate a release, let alone pressings, deliveries, etc. Blighe explains. “Transduction is the brainchild of our good friend Patrick Nesbitt, a Finglas man relocated to Japan. He’s a veteran of the Dublin music scene since the late ’80s, and despite the big distance he has a keen interest in the Irish music scene. Talking to Nez on a VOIP call the other week it felt like he could have been five minutes up the road. Distance has fewer implications with technology and it’s been interesting to see how much of the process of writing, recording and releasing this album has been accomplished online, from us recording demos in different countries, arranging mastering with Balance Mastering in the UK, or Nez ordering duplication in the Czech Republic from Japan! Nez is a true music fan and enthusiast who had support independent music in Ireland and Japan for a long time now. We’re very lucky to have him behind us.”

With a date in Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church confirmed for March 16th, and further national touring to be announced for June, it’s a busy time for the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock. Not that it’s stopped Blighe and crew from making yet more plans. “Beyond this record, we’d love to keep playing electric-guitar-orchestra shows. It’s an incredible buzz to make such a big sound with such a big bunch of friends! However we’re also looking at stripping back toward the original five-piece line up for something less complicated. Ideas are also building for the next record, which may be something more rooted in Faerie and otherworldly myths, than history.”

‘Lockout’ is available on March 16th online and physically via Transduction Records.

The Shaker Hymn: “There’s No Redoing Things”

New single ‘Dead Trees’ sees Corkonian poppers The Shaker Hymn in hollering, apocalyptic form. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist Caoilian Sherlock about the process behind the band’s upcoming third album.

It’s one of those odd things, independent music: for a wide umbrella of music that prides itself on creative freedom and cultural autonomy in order to help progress the overall artistic discourse, there’s also no shortage of revivalists of various stripes, putting a new lease of life into previously well-worn sonic tropes. It’s been hard in the past to look at Corkonian psych-poppers The Shaker Hymn and not get some degree of the warm-and-fuzzies: emerging from teenage adventures in the folk and alternative genres, second album ‘Do You Think You’re Clever?’, self-released last year veered wildly into tape-hiss, big sounds and the kind of vocal harmonies the like of Supergrass would have been envious of at the outset of Britpop. It was a mix that intrigued a lot of people, and preceded a furious touring schedule in small towns and small venues all over the country, before the band took a breather to try other things and collect their thoughts before readying another salvo of new material.

In that context, then, the band’s new single, ‘Dead Trees’, is something of a surprise: though the hard-won authenticity of fuzz and hiss is granted permanence via recording directly to analogue tape for the first time, it’s something of a beast of its own. Vocalist/guitarist Caoilian Sherlock, a naturally happy-go-lucky fellow, drops the youthful distrust of the band’s post-Millennial fug in favour of fire-and-brimstone doomsaying, warning of an uncertain future, in direct contrast to his fine fettle as we meet at L’Attitude on Cork’s Union Quay for a natter. Sherlock is relaxed about the response the single has met with at the band’s gigs so far this winter, a return to live activity that foreshadows an upcoming third album. “It’s been good. I forgot what it was like to do gigs. We hadn’t performed in about a year, except for one gig in Belgium where we tested out all our new songs. It’s nice. The songs are different. It seems boring to other people, but they’re longer. I guess we’ve given up the idea of trying to impress anyone else, I think. When you’re a bit younger, you try and write something to get in the charts, or something. We’ve been doing that since we were sixteen. We’re twenty-eight, twenty-nine, now. The point of us being in a band to give us that expression that comes from being together, so there’s less rules and a lot more of a democratic process going on between the four of us. The intention is to make the most exciting thing we can.”

The process of creating music for record is obviously far different now than it would have been in the days of the band’s broader influences, and in trying to put down a document of where they are at present, the outfit have opted to keep recording their third album on tape, in order to instill the same sense of urgency, immediacy, and the finality of limited takes into their tunes. “Music nerds will be like, ‘oh, how exciting!’, but for those that don’t really care about the music recording process: we’ll be recording to tape, like they did up until the late Eighties, early Nineties. It means everything has to be done live. That’s exciting for us, ’cause it’s a different process, there’s no sitting at the computer and redoing things. If you sound good or bad on the day, it doesn’t matter: that’s what happened, and that’s really exciting for us. We recorded two albums in three years and before that tonnes of EPs, so the recording process can get a bit flavourless, so for us, this is a bit of spice,” smiles Sherlock.

‘Dead Trees’ itself touches on some fairly hefty business, shifting creative focus from bon-vivant appraisals of the maladies of twenty-somethings in the binds of austerity and ladder-pulling, like in previous single ‘Trophy Child’, to altogether broader subject matter as mentioned at the outset of this piece. The question is: what prompted this turn for the thematically heavy? “’Trophy Child’ was on our last album, and I couldn’t help but write about things that were going on around me. All my friends were going away to the UK, leaving Cork to go to Dublin, go to Australia and New Zealand, coming back, then going to South East Asia… much of that album was about that lost kind of feeling, not that I was lost staying in Cork, but a lot of people around me were having the conversation of not knowing where to go. So a lot of the songs were about that. This time around I wanted to write from a more thematic point of view, as much as I could, but not so personal, more universal. So, I was doing a lot more travelling, as this album began to be written. I got to go to Iceland and LA, and other places I’d never seen, new landscapes, so I wanted to write something about nature, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t not write about the world after Trump, and Brexit. There was a heavy feeling at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, so there’s a lot of that on this new album. There’s also a lot of joy and excitement, and a feeling of ‘ooh, what’s gonna happen next?’”

The band’s recent downtime allowed Sherlock to spread his wings on a solo basis as Saint Caoilian, releasing his debut one-man effort, ‘The Faraway’, earlier in the year. Away from a shared creative process, Sherlock’s tendencies toward lovelorn pop, bearing the hallmark of power-pop pioneers like Big Star, are writ large all over leadoff single ‘I’ll Be a Fool For You’. It led to a massively busy summer of gigs, both in support of his own record and of fellow Corkonian troubadour Marlene Enright, and with the ball rolling on the endeavour, there’s little stopping him from continuing his path inbetween bursts of band activity. “I’m recording another EP this December! It’s funny, the reason Saint Caoilian came about was because I had about fifty demos at home. They weren’t going anywhere, and they weren’t necessarily Shaker Hymn songs. On top of that, I’ve been in this band since I was sixteen, you can’t expect three other people to travel all the time, can’t expect them to drop everything because you’re anxious about your life. I wanted to travel for the summer, so I recorded an EP that gave me an excuse to do just that. The process of the Shaker Hymn will take another year or so, but with Saint Caoilian, I can do everything in a week or two, book some dates.”

Sherlock’s tour of duty over the winter also extends to festival management of one of Cork’s most important festivals, Quarter Block Party, transpiring this year from February 2-4th along the city’s historic spine. Among the first wave of acts announced so far for the Main Street community extravaganza are comedienne Alison Spittle, fresh off her new work with RTÉ, and Waterford post-punks Percolator, returning to the city after launching recent LP ‘Sestra’ on Cork-based label Penske Recordings. Rolling out more announcements, fundraising & organising for the event itself will occupy Sherlock’s entire remaining free time for the winter, and he’ll not be able to raise his head above the parapet much. “Between here and Quarter Block Party, I can’t see much further than that. Keep the head down over the Christmas, then Quarter Block Party on the first weekend of February. After that, maybe sleep for about a hundred years?”

The Shaker Hymn’s new single ‘Dead Trees’ and Saint Caoilian’s extended-player ‘The Faraway’ are both available now across all digital services. Quarter Block Party tickets are onsale now, more info and lineup updates at quarterblockparty.com.

Ten from the ’10s (So Far)

Adding yet another voice to the shouting match over great Irish music, Mike McGrath-Bryan takes a stab at updating the “Irish rock” canon.

The creation of lists, listicles and the like are, at the best of times, half the writer’s personal preference, half a tiresome editorial box-ticking exercise. The October 1st edition of the Sunday Times bore this out to be true, as a much-feted “101 Irish Albums We Love” list, compiled by Something Happens vocalist & Newstalk man Tom Dunne, ripped the bandage away from the unending arguments over objective stances on a subjective medium. Was ‘Astral Weeks’ really that good? Was the chase for the next U2 really the best thing for Irish music? Why aren’t Scary Éire or Primordial ever on these all-timer lists?

The big takeaway from this latest bout of squabbling, however, was a note of disappointment for readers under thirty: one of the country’s highest-profile disc-jocks and champions of music programming had seemingly included one (1) single independently-released album from this decade on an otherwise comprehensive list. Amid a current golden age in independently-released music in Ireland, no less.

While the debate around the issue has cooled down to the usual degree of infighting among Irish music pedants, your writer would be remiss if he didn’t create some degree of companion piece to balance the conversation. And here it is: a list, though by no means definitive, ten Irish records from this decade you should be adding to your collection. The rules are simple: albums released since 2010, open genre policy, no big-name reunions, no major-label releases. Enjoy.

ADEBISI SHANK – This Is The Second Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shank (2011, Richter Collective)

A day-zero event in the current development of independent music in Ireland, the Wexford trio’s second long-player marked their transition from fret-burning, pedal-stacking math-rock noisemakers to something more. Post-rock and its associated sub-genres set about rearranging the deckchairs and do something new with an established setup. With the beep-boop, oddly-metered intro to opener ‘International Dreambeat’, the intention was apparent: clear the decks and make way for a retro-futuristic anime parade. The following forty minutes are unlike anything this country has produced, before or since, a joyous race through thumping, squalling sounds and lush textures.

AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR – Gangs (2012, Richter Collective)

North Shore four-piece And So I Watch You From Afar had also been grafting for years on sweetly melodic, yet no-less deft tunes that packed the detail of math-rock, the dynamic & breathing space of post-rock, and the velocity of metal into its ebbs and flows. A self-titled debut LP saw the band begin to make themselves a space; ‘Gangs” threw explosives in and cleared their path. ‘Search:Party:Animal’ is a shot of concentrated adrenaline, ‘…Samara to Belfast’ oozes tension, while single ‘7 Billion People All Alive at Once’ takes a pretty, building piece of post-rock and detonates it into a grin-inducing, babble-along waltz. A special record from a band in a special place.

LAURA SHEERAN – What the World Knows (2012, self-release)

While Ireland has had a long and proud tradition in the fields of improvisation and the avant-garde, there are very few artists that have brought together the sheer love of the process with a singular, driven vision for every aspect of creation quite like Galwegian Laura Sheeran. What the World Knows provided our first longform glimpse of Sheeran’s internal creative world, stark and melancholic, playing with arrangement and form, but always making her strong and steady voice central to its peaks and valleys, as best demonstrated on ‘Hurricane’.

BANTUM – Legion (2013, ElevenEleven)

Dublin-resident Corkman Ruairí Lynch was a favourite among bloggers earlier in the decade, presenting an eclectic, yet accessible take on a wide swathe of electronica. Debut long-player ‘Legion’ sanded all the polish off, leaving only evidence of the swelling, full heart of a creator and the friendships behind the collaborations thereon. Singles ‘Oh My Days’ and ‘Legion’ heave with a wistful, yet ultimately upbeat take on internal monologues; the former nesting Eimear O’Donovan’s vocals amid layers of reverb and delay, the latter providing an eighties-indie feel of earnestness to warm, yet haunting electronic pop.

LYNCHED – Cold Old Fire (2014, self-release)

Amid the depths of austerity, and the increasingly-apparent nature of its legacy, tone-deaf cries from mainstream music press bemoaned the lack of protest music as with previous generations before moving along to the next shiny thing. If they’d bothered looking around, they would have found the band currently known as Lankum, recasting lost folk gems from around the world for the modern condition, and co-penning the definitive modern recession song in the album’s title track. In the process, the Dublin four-piece became arguably the custodians of the Irish folk tradition, a contrast from the stuffy gatekeeping of conservative Ireland.

ILENKUS – The Crossing (2014, self-release)

With a keen ear for technicality and a feel for the weight of sludgy, metallic tones, Galwegian five-piece Ilenkus have always brought to the forefront of their music something casual observers have wrongly remarked is missing from the genre: humanity. The band’s second full-length is a brave, honest work that sees the band confront internal and external issues, from the painful, cathartic and intricate title track, to the pointed sociopolitical barbs of ‘Over the Fire, Under the Smoke’ (sent viral that year for a one-take promo video that saw Chris Brennan perform his gutturally yowled vocals on a walk down Galway’s Shop Street).

NAIVE TED – The Inevitable Heel Turn (2015, self-release)

By day, mild-mannered social worker/music teacher Andy Connolly. By night, skratchador enmascarado Naive Ted. A longtime fixture on a small but dedicated Irish turntablism scene as one-man duo Deviant & Naive Ted, Limerick-based Connolly found himself in a wider, albeit cultish, spotlight via a series of chance encounters culminating in his work ending up as entrance music on Japanese national television, accompanying Wicklow pro-wrestling superstar Fergal Devitt and his villainous Bullet Club gang. The full-length that followed was positively bananas, as old-school skratchology met a truly eclectic range of samples before being thrown, full-force, at Steve Reich-esque experimentation and being thoroughly deconstructed accordingly.

SHARDBORNE – Living Bridges (2015, Out on a Limb)

Metal in Ireland has always been kept alive by community efforts, from gigs and labels to zines and blogs. No more loyal defenders of the cause exist than the brothers Culhane, two of a team of volunteers that Limerick’s Bad Reputation gigs and the Siege of Limerick all-dayers. It just so happens that they’re also half of progressive metal weapon-wielders Shardborne: technically-proficient, theory-literate musicians whose love of seventies prog seems them invoke the pioneer spirit of their genre forerunners in a completely different context.

KATIE KIM – Salt (2016, Art for Blind)

Created throughout 2014 and produced by Percolator/Guerrilla Sounds man John Murphy, Salt saw Waterford’s Katie Kim place her quietly-powerful voice on a larger, yet more deeply personal creative stage from the go, where sparse, echoing production is offset by celestial synth in ‘Ghosts’, or set against resonant pianos amid the pain and rumination of ‘Body Break’. It’s a theme that runs throughout, playing on a feeling of foreboding and the natural urge for introspection from which the listener emerges different, more in tune, best summed up as the layers of sounds continue to amass as album standout ‘Life or Living’ wends its way around itself.

RUSANGANO FAMILY – Let The Dead Bury The Dead (2016, self-release)

The trio of GodKnows, Murli and mynameisj0hn had been collaborating together in different configurations in the years prior to naming John and Godknows’ joint album ‘Rusangano/Family’, a bilingual take on the ties that bind Irish people to the wider world, and a wave of young new Irish to the culture they have grown up and become themselves in. A fitting banner, then, to take the lead into a new generation of homegrown, multicultural music with ‘Let the Dead Bury the Dead’, riffing on cultural change, the weight of history, and the challenges of identity. ‘Soul Food’ is a shirt-waving banger of a tune, while ‘Lights On’ is nothing short of a love letter to Limerick city. Winner of last year’s Choice Award for a reason.

Lankum: On the Cusp of the Unknown

This is the unedited version of the Lankum interview from the October edition of Village Magazine. The print edit is available to read here.

The last couple of years have been busy for Dublin folk miscreants Lankum, to say the very least. Emerging from their roots in the city’s underground, the one-time performance-art have completed a transformation into arguably the country’s foremost folk performer-curators, casting traditional gems and original compositions in a mix of folk, traditional and a variety of modern alternative idioms from drone to Krautrock. It’s seen them go from putting down their first “proper” long-player in a bunker under the city, to playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Folk Awards and signing with iconic indie label Rough Trade for new album ‘Between the Earth and Sky’. It appears as though the band are on the cusp of wider success, but for vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Daragh Lynch, it’s just the next step. “The last couple of years have been crazy, alright, from playing on Jools Holland, or in the Paris Philharmonic and Royal Albert Hall, playing on national TV in Ireland, and making friends with the likes of Christy Moore and Martin Carthy, having meetings with the heads of Rough Trade, it’s all seemed like a long series of bizarre moments where we keep turning to each other and whispering, “what in the living fuck is going on?” I’m not sure we really feel like we’re on the cusp of something “bigger”, as such, more that we’re on the cusp of the unknown, with a new album, a new record label, a new name and no idea how the next year is going to pan out. Not that that’s anything bad! It brings a certain level of excitement in its own way.”

Perhaps the biggest milestone, not just for the band, but regard the address of social issues among the Irish musical community in recent times, has been changing their name from ‘Lynched’ to ‘Lankum’. A decision taken to express solidarity with marginalised peoples in the current social & political climate, the new moniker was inspired by Traveller song ‘False Lankum’, and according to multi-instrumentalist Ian Lynch, was a call a few years in the making. “This was something that we had been discussing amongst ourselves for a good year or two, before we made the announcement in October last year. I have to say that apart from one or two comments online, most people have been supportive of the change. I know that some promoters were worried about people not recognising the new name and subsequent slumps in ticket sales, but we seem to have gotten over that stage now, and are still doing well in that regard. It definitely seems to me that we made the right decision and we still stick by it, one-hundred percent. I think now more than ever we’re seeing an alarming normalisation of right-wing ideas across the western world – it’s definitely not a time to be sitting on the fence as it were.” The band’s socially-conscious attitude has always been a pillar of the band’s compositions and selections, and for Daragh, the family name had to come second to the current state of play. “It was a very tough one alright, and it was pretty obvious to most people that the name, which had very innocently been chosen a decade and a half ago, was becoming progressively more problematic, especially as our reach began to expand outside Ireland and the UK, at the exact same time as the current rise of far right ideologies in the US and Europe.”

Signing to London-based Rough Trade also represents another step forward for the band, with Geoff Travis’ legendary label currently standing at the forefront of UK folk. With creative autonomy ensured by the label’s independent status and historical weight, the band took it upon themselves to rise to the occasion, according to vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Radie Peat. “I think on a psychological level knowing that the album would come out on Rough Trade gave us a slightly sharper focus. The stakes felt higher, when we released the last album we didn’t even think we would sell five hundred copies, so this was a very different undertaking.” For Ian, the retention of creative freedom was a caveat of the band’s involvement with any label, wary of the exploitation that continues in the industry’s upper reaches in the post-CD age. “From what I’ve heard read and experienced personally, Rough Trade are one of the only labels around that we would even consider working with. They have consistently been supportive of what we do, and any decisions that they have made have been through consultations with us. Geoff Travis is a legend, and if he is into what you’re doing as a band he will support you all the way. Playing the kind of music we do, not everyone outside of the folk scene ‘gets it’, so it’s great to be dealing with someone who does. Compare this to the nightmare world of 360 deals, labels taking merch and tour money off bands, major labels who tell you that they completely get what you’re doing musically, and then ask you would you consider penning a song for the Irish Team in the World Cup, and you can see why the decision was an easy one.”

‘Between the Earth and Sky’ presents a wider sonic palate than debut long-player ‘Cold Old Fire’ from the beginning, but equally as important as production and composition are the band’s selections of traditional compositions. A number of live favourites of the band make the cut this time, not the least of them rebel-song standby ‘Sergeant William Bailey’ and protest anthem ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, written and first performed by prisoners of concentration camps in World War II. Ian outlines the process, pros and cons of such curation. “To be honest, the four of us are constantly researching, learning, and singing traditional songs. There is no shortage of really great songs, obscure or otherwise and its something that we’ve always been into. We’re always bringing new songs to the table and we’ve arranged and worked on at least as many as we’ve recorded. For one reason or another we have a huge backlog of stuff that we’ve either arranged and become a bit jaded with after practicing them everyday for months, of songs that we just forgot about. The upside is that when we come to picking new songs for live gigs or for a recorded we have plenty to choose from.” Adds Daragh on the topic: “These things generally have their own internal creative rhythm, so if something really leaps out then we can have the bulk of an arrangement quite quickly, though this doesn’t guarantee that we’ll use it, and we have a bunch of pieces that haven’t seen the light of day.”

From its first note, the tone of the new album is different from its predecessor: album opener ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money?’ invests Peat’s scintillating take on the old Traveller song with a thick, monotone drone; ‘Sergeant William Bailey’ is pockmarked with military snare and brass, and original composition ‘The Granite Gaze’ features the Philip Glass-like squeezebox parts that the band’s social media teased a while back. Daragh expands on the fullness of sound that accompanies the new platter. “From the start we decided we wanted the new album to sound similar to ‘Cold Old Fire’ but definitely with a bigger, more ‘lush’ kind of sound, with a wider and more expansive and immersive low end, so there’s definitely a bit more drone involved. We definitely spent more time on that when mixing, doing all sorts of mad things like quadrupling drone tracks, putting two of them back through analogue compressors and pushing them out to the far pans, or gradually building up multiple low end drones across a track so that if you listen to it on headphones it nearly sounds like you’re being submerged. It was a lot of fun! We’re all very into different types of music, from Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, to The Jimmy Cake, various Black Metal bands, Autechre, Neu! and so on, as well as traditional music and song. So it’s probably more a case of us incorporating all of those influences into some kind of bizarre, bastard mutant music child.”

‘Cold Old Fire’, the eponymous single of their first long-player, follows the band around: placing the Irish tradition of lament and focusing it on the Ireland of austerity and neoliberalism, it struck a chord with various audiences. ‘Déanta in Eireann’ and ‘The Granite Gaze’, the new record’s pair of originals, act as natural follow-ons, the former follows off from the warm humour in the familiarity of bemoaning the state of things, while the latter looks very soberly at the human cost of austerity and the lost decade. Composer Ian discusses following up on one of their career works. “It definitely depends on the song. With ‘Déanta in Éireann’, I sat down and composed the song in one long go. I had originally intended to write a modern day emigration song – which is what it is – but I definitely didn’t think it would take eight verses for me to get it all out of my system. I sang it around a good number of singing sessions around the country and it always seemed to go down well – I would often have elderly men and women come up to me afterwards to tell me that they really liked it and they understood that you have to use harsh language to describe harsh situations, so that was its baptism in a way. We were talking about arranging it for the band for a long time but could never come up with anything satisfactory. We tried again when we were recording the album and were really happy with how it came out, so it was a keeper.” Meanwhile, ‘The Granite Gaze’ was a more collaborative effort, tackling the realities of post-austerity difficulty and alienation, according to Daragh. “It looks a lot more at some very dark and disturbing elements of Ireland’s recent history, and the very real impact that we still feel from that today. When we sat down to work out the lyrics, we were sure that we didn’t want to spell it out too obviously though, and that it would be a far more effective song if we alluded to things and used phrases that might have more than one meaning, and that this would serve to create more of a general feeling and mood than a straight up commentary. I have to say that I’m pretty happy with the job we did and hope that we can do a lot more of it!”

The next step for the four-piece is to head back to the UK to plug the new album, ahead of the usual extended promotional campaign. At this stage of the game, with the brothers Lynch in particular knocking around in different iterations for over twenty years, the lads have the touring regime down to a fine art, according to Ian. “Well, we’ve been heading off on so many of these tours over the last few years. At first it seemed like hard work coordinating everything, but we’ve done it so much that now we know exactly what everyone should be doing – we’re a well-oiled machine! We now know that the day is too busy to organise to meet your friends in a city, that you’re not going to get to stroll around most places that you play, that someone has to get the merch set up as soon as you get in somewhere, that someone has to organize the itinerary, that you should bring an mp3 player with loads of podcasts and audiobooks, et cetera. All obvious stuff, but you only get good at it through experience. I really look forward to heading off on these tours now. You don’t have any time to relax really, but its all geared towards doing what you love, you get to sing songs and play music with your best friends as well as meet great people every night and the best thing is you’re not taking orders from anyone. It’s better than tarring the road, as they say!”

‘Between the Earth and Sky’ releases on CD, vinyl and digital formats via Rough Trade on October 27th. For more, check out lankumdublin.com, and @lankumdublin.

The Altered Hours: “It’s Always There”


As one body of work fades to memory and another begins to unfurl for Leeside psychedelia outfit The Altered Hours, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with frontman Cathal MacGabhann about the creative process, recording in Berlin, and the ebb & flow of change in the band’s home city.

In the realms of the arts in Ireland, relating a practitioner’s body of work back to their press material is often rightly met with cynicism from certain quarters. But for Cork-resident quintet The Altered Hours, a seemingly vainglorious claim to “exist within a swirl of the hypnotic” is not too far from the band’s sonic mark. Striking a gentle balance between psychedelic rock’s thoughtful abandon and dour post-punk precision via shoegaze’s more sparse reaches, the band’s current fuzz-laden attack is the end result of years of experimentation across a number of singles and extended-players, no surprise given their roots in the Leeside city’s mid-aughts folk and improvisation scenes.

In January of last year, the band, fronted by the duo of guitarist/vocalist Cathal MacGabhann and musical polymath Elaine Howley, finally released their debut album after nearly eight years together. In Heat/Not Sorry, recorded in Berlin’s Funkhaus studio in the early part of 2015, arguably sees the band at their most focused, as perhaps best evidenced on walls of sound like heads-down album standout Way of Sorrow. MacGabhann opines on what brought about such a wait, and how the creative experiences that led to the album informed the band’s curiosity for wider horizons. “We could have probably put an album out earlier than we did, but we were excited to continue working with Fabien (Leseure, engineer/producer on the band’s eponymous E.P.), so we took the time to arrange a date, and store up all our songs for this one month long recording session with him. I’m glad we did, as I loved working with him, and he taught me a lot. If I’ve learnt anything from those initial releases, it’s that I enjoy changing the environment around us from project to project. It causes you to push with and against new ideas and learn from experience, not from fear of change.”

The band’s directness of sound comes from their collective creative process, as the years have given the Altered Hours a keenly-honed feel for what works and what doesn’t once the exploration of jam sessions has finished. This instinct with which the band has operated in recent times was the modus operandi behind the record’s creation. “What happens with me is, I’ll just be making up something constantly, either half a song, a beat, bass line, ranting & humming into my phone, or just song names or whatever. It’s running through my mind, 24/7. So when it comes to recording this album, it was just a matter of picking out what we wanted from a large bunch of ideas and jams we had to create an album.” Being transplanted from the relative comfort of Cork city, where the band have been at the centre of the musical community via their presences in a succession of DIY studios and rehearsal spaces, to the frontier of the German capital in the post-hipster gold rush, presented its challenges, but also placed MacGabhann in his element for his part. “Coming from rural Ireland, I think I have quite a hunger for large cities, as it still feels exotic to me. So getting the chance to record in Berlin has been nothing but a pleasure.”

In Heat/Not Sorry was released in a joint effort between Cork-based record labels Art for Blind, since relocated to Sligo and residing in its Model Arts Centre, and Penske Recordings, founded by Irish indie-music cornerstone Albert Twomey. While it’s far from unusual to see independent or DIY labels split minor releases in order to keep costs down or burden-share the work of releasing a record, such collaboration is seldom seen for a band’s debut LP, usually the preserve of a label establishing a routine and bottom line for their newly-acquired property. It’s a relationship built on trust and mutual respect between all parties on the creative and administrative ends, one which MacGabhann is evidently at ease with. “We’re grown a very strong relationship with both Art For Blind and Penske. It feels great to release music with them, as they’ll always be on your side and treat every group or release with support and an open mind. Just, really nice people to work with.”

The album has been received well by critics and the wider music community: glowing reviews in print holdouts Hot Press and The Thin Air followed a positive reception from the blogosphere and social media to advance streaming singles, with no greater authority than the Irish Times weighing heavily in the band’s favour despite questions about the concept-art aspect of the LP. From there, the band arguably became the country’s worst-kept musical secret, with sold-out shows for the likes of Aiken Promotions as well as comprehensive continental touring. “I guess we got to gig a lot more since that release, which we welcomed with open arms. It’s my favourite way to expend energy”, smiles MacGabhann. Seeing the band in action dispels any notions of pretension or studiousness that all of these imperatives may bring to mind. A finely-tuned machine, the ‘swirl of the hypnotic; becomes more of a whirling dervish, particularly Howley’s otherworldly, stage-consuming charisma and lead guitarist Kevin Terry’s slivers of ingenue amid the chaos. The band’s reputation stems from that penchant for fierceness stems from that same forthright approach that informs them as creators. “We don’t think about it too much, especially the live show. We are just very passionate about our music, and music in general. We are always just ready to play, so we don’t need a particular ritual to get us going. It’s always there.”

The band’s status as something of a flagship for music in the southern capital was brought into sharp focus in recent times, as the band hand-picked to play the final night at community-central gig venue Gulpd Cafe before its closure earlier this summer. Cork is currently in the grip of something of a crisis for the arts, with the majority of the city’s major multipurpose spaces closing, scaling down or relocating owing to the ongoing wider property-market pressures, among other factors. Licensed gig venues are also seemingly at a premium compared to the boom years or even the bust, despite the town’s renown as a cool second city stemming mostly from its history of off-kilter music and spaces. That same call felt by many to the city’s artistic underbelly is what keeps MacGabhann there. “I moved to Cork by chance. Some close friends were moving there for college, so I just followed and got work. I’m glad I did, because it was a wonderful place to start a band, especially during the recent recession. It allowed us to haunt some very interesting abandoned buildings. It’s a shame to see this huge shift happening again in Cork, and all the venues and spaces that closed in recent months. But I think as long as everyone keeps making stuff, then the arts community can’t die, and it will always find a place to prevail. The boom can come and go, but ideas outside the realm of commerce will remain. This isn’t ideal, but it’s an idea worth holding on to.”

Word has emerged from the Altered Hours camp in recent times of a new extended-player on the way, the result of a further pared-down set of sessions that seems likely to further distill their knack for various musical frames of reference. But what might seem to be small steps to listeners and critics upon its eventual release, represent a giant leap for the band’s mission to retain their independence and creativity, as their dogged self-direction has extended from the jam rooms and into the production suite. “We just finished it, and are getting it ready for a release very soon. We recorded it mostly live in studio. This one was recorded as quickly as possible so it’s a little closer to that live sound, I think. We mixed this one ourselves, and I really enjoyed that.”