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(Shanachie 78046 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/6/2002)
In some ways, Celtic music over the last decade is a little like folk music was in the 1960s.With both, there was the arrival of a significant number of outstanding young artists, who at first were very traditional in their approach, but with time started branching out absorbing non-traditional influences in a big way. The famous example was when Bob Dylan went electric. An in some ways, the Celtic music scene, which a few years ago was dominated by groups dedicated to traditional styles, has moved into some very eclectic stylistic amalgams. Many of the long-running traditional style groups are also getting into the Celtic fusion scene, including DeDannan, Capercaillie and Altan.
Over the past half dozen years, one of the brightest lights on the Celtic scene has been the Irish-American band Solas, founded by American born, part-time Irish resident Seamus Egan, who was a notable prodigy winning traditional Irish competitions on four different instruments while still in his teens. Egan formed Solas around 1995 and the group quickly attracted attention for their virtuosic musicianship and eclectic repertoire, running from very traditional music to Woody Guthrie songs. Over the years, the group has been gradually casting its stylistic net more widely, culminating in their new, fifth CD called The Edge of Silence, which one would be hard pressed to call "traditional." In fact there is not a single piece on the CD that is listed in the composaers' credits as being traditional. Instead, the music ranges from original pieces, to a pair by a friend of the band, to music from the 1960s from the likes of Jesse Colin Young and Nick Drake, to the first instance of a Celtic band doing a Tom Waits song that I have had the opportunity to hear.
Die-hard fans of traditional Celtic music, at which the group succeeded to well, may not be amused. But if this CD is considered on its own merit as an album by a musically gifted band, who find inspiration in Celtic music, rather than a group who specialize in Celtic music, then the result is quite fascinating and enjoyable.
Over the last couple of years, the group's personnel has changed quite a bit to the point that Egan and violinist Winifred Horan, a New York native, are the only original members. The group's founding vocalist Karan Casey amicably left the group before their last CD The Hour Before Dawn, released in the fall of 2000. She was replaced by the Irish-born Deidre Scanlon. Also on that CD, accordionist Mick McAuley was replaced by John Williams. On this CD multi-instrumentalist John Doyle was replaced by a someone with a good Irish music pedigree, Donal Clancy, son of Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.
But perhaps the most striking contributor to the group's change in sound on this CD is producer Neil Dorfsman, whose career in the studio has included work for some of the biggest names in British rock, including Paul McCartney, Dire Straits and its founder Mark Knopfler, Sting and on this side of the Atlantic, Bruce Hornsby. Dorfsman, who serves both as a producer and as engineer, is known for his spacious, sophisticated, almost shimmering sound, which would seem at odds with the acoustic textures one normally associated with Celtic music. And while hints of the original sound of Solas remain, Dorfsman, who co-produced the CD with Egan, brings in synthesizers, conventional drums, drum loops, and electric guitars. But given Dorfsman's penchant for making remarkably tasteful records that skirt the boundaries of pop, the electrification of Solas works surprisingly well.
The newer members of Solas are a good fit, though whether by the change in personnel or the decisions on production style, there is less of the impressive instrumental virtuosity that marked the group's previous releases. There are four instrumentals on the CD, but the emphasis is more of the sonic textures and the cross-cultural fusion than in the hot playing.
Leading off is one of the unexpected covers for a Celtic band, the Youngbloods' 1960s hit Darkness Darkness, a song on which the band casts a whole new light. The rhythm is provided by one of those now ubiquitous electronic drum loops. <<>> The one concession to the Celtic tradition is a short instrumental segment which provides a wonderful contrast to the rest of the song. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is called Charmy Chaplin, and though it sounds like an old Irish piece, was written by Solas' violinist Winifred Horan, and is full of interesting twists and turns. <<>>
There are two songs on the CD by someone named Antje Duvekot, who is heard doing some backing vocals on the CD. The first is part of a medley of two pieces, the instrumental Prelude #1 by Egan, and Black Annis. After the new-agey Prelude <<>> the song assumes a similarly atmospheric sound, the sort of thing for which producer Dorfsman is well known. <<>>
The other Duvekot composition, The Poisonjester's Mark, is more toward in a singer-songwriter mode, with interesting and somewhat cryptic lyrics, while Solas assumes more of a rock-band sound. <<>>
The group does not completely leave their Celtic traditions behind on this CD. An original instrumental piece by Seamus Egan called Who's in the What Now brings out the band's fine musicianship. The composition itself though basically a jig, is given a twist that hints at an Eastern European quality. It's one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
Another unexpected cover tune performed by the band is a somewhat obscure Bob Dylan song called Dignity, which the group takes from its originally bluesy sound, and puts it into jig time. <<>>
Also taking a decidedly untraditional rhythmic approach is a piece by one of the group's new members, Mick McAuley, called Beck Street. It combines Solas' musical eclecticism with the decidedly non-traditional instrumental and sonic approach of this CD. <<>>
In light of the considerable renewed interest in the music of the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, the group does a Drake piece called Clothes of Sand, which features the vocals of McAuley. The moody song takes well to the Celtic-influenced treatment, which highlights the song's melody that can hint at traditional music. <<>>
The album ends with one of its most impressive pieces, Solas' version of Tom Waits' song Georgia Lee. It begins with another of Egan's atmospheric Preludes <<>> before Ms. Scanlan's nice performance of the poignant lyrics, in what is probably as different a voice from that of Waits as you could possibly find.
Solas' new fifth album The Edge of Silence marks a considerable, though in some ways, incremental change from their previous recordings, which have been getting more eclectic and less traditional over time. The lack of any traditional material, the more rock-oriented, though tasteful production by Neil Dorfsman, and the eclectic arrangements make for a fine, wide-ranging CD on which Celtic is but one component, though still a fairly large one. The group's creative treatment of rock-era songs, plus the worthwhile original music make for a decidedly contemporary sound that may not be to the liking of those who became fans of their virtuosic treatment of traditional Irish material. But listened to with an open mind, the CD stands a thoroughly worthwhile and often fascinating recording.
Sonically, the CD is also a class act. Though I might quibble with some of the creative decisions such as the use of the drum loops, of which I have never been fond, and a sound that gets a little too much toward New Age in spots, nevertheless, Dorfsman's production and mix live up to his reputation for sonic excellence.
One of the facets of Solas that held such an appeal for me was their sheer instrumental brilliance, as well the way they could breathe new life into a traditional song. So for those reasons, The Edge of Silence is not my favorite Solas album, still on its own merits it's a most impressive recording, and the group deserves credit for their stylistic exploration.
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