Afro Celt Sound System
Volume 2: Release
RealWorld (realworld.on.net/rwr)

Sheela na Gigh
Live by the Aire
Arktos (sheela@freenet.edmonton.ab.ca)

Celtic music remains a lively art, with hosts of artists worldwide honoring its heritage by rehearsing its classics as traditionally as possible, others continuing to compose anew, driving the evolution of the genre. But the Celtic influence also serves as a seed in other styles, germinating as robust new musical experiments. Two of the most successful recent products differ wildly in effect, but share a common intensity.

Afro Celt Sound System's second release melds Celtic instrumentation and vocals, along with a touch of African percussion, into a driving techno-dance vision of frenzied trance on a drip-feed of caffeine. The title track features dueling vocals by Sinead O'Connor and Iarla O Lionaird, dense and dramatic, djembe and shaker percussion as well as pipes and whistles subordinated to its pop drive. The talking drums and pipes of the wild instrumental fling "Lovers of Light" better preserve Celtic influences, leaving you exhausted and receptive to "Eireann," a calmer rhythm anchoring the smooth Irish vocal of O Lionaird, alternating with N'Faly Kouyate's sandpapery vocal keening. "Big Cat" is another quick instrumental, featuring a bouncy balafon and some excellent if brief kora and whistle solos, the most effective collaboration of African, Celtic, and techno styles on the record. 'Release' is a bit too oriented toward the rave crowd for my taste, but does illustrate how traditional elements, Celtic and African, can enliven contemporary styles.

At first, I was tempted to think of Canadian quartet Sheela na Gigh's 'Live by the Aire' as a traditional performance of Celtic songs, but repeated exposures have convinced me that this recording represents a unique, intense, and ultimately successful vision. Instrumentation is mostly acoustic, based on guitar, wind instruments, and hand percussion with effective use made of drones, and supports the compelling vocals of Jan Henderson and Tami Cooper, rich and assured whether solo or in their more common tight harmony configuration. "Sorry the Day I Was Married" begins with calm marimba, chimes, a quiet synthesized drone, the drama of this traditional protest carried almost entirely by the two voices, a central hummed reverie with quiet percussion almost shockingly ended by the final chorus. The long, sad "The Selchie," a Scottish traditional song familiar to those with long memories as the melody of "I Come and Stand at Every Door" from the Byrds' "Fifth Dimension" album, combines flute and quiet percussion with duet vocals to such riveting dramatic effect that one can easily imagine its recitation by candle light, relieved and redeemed by a quiet low flute tune which accelerates toward the song's finish. "Rattlin' Roarin' Willie" is much more lively, a medieval sounding Celtic rant driven along by precise, intertwining vocals and a whistle solo of restrained fury. Another show stopper is "Easter Tree," a slow, harrowing tale of death on the cross with some contemporary suggestions. "Live by the Aire" at times suggests a Renaissance Fair, but one where the music refuses to remain confined to the background, instead entrancing all present. And who shall wake them? - Jim Foley

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