Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Peter Gabriel was one of the first mainstream pop stars to champion what we now call world music. Three recent Real World discs all deal with music informed by tradition. Foxlight is (I think) his fourth release, a superbly atmospheric work in which O Lionaird's voice is framed by layers of both electronic ambiance and acoustic instrumentation.
Personnel: Iarla O Lionáird (vocals); Leo Abrahams (electric guitar, piano, programming).
Audio Mixers: Stephen Shannon; Leo Abrahams; Charlie Francis.
Recording information: Cafe Music Studios, East London; Inistioge, County Kilkenny.
Photographer: Iarla O Lionáird.
Arranger: Leo Abrahams.
Five years after the award-winning Invisible Fields, Iarla O Lionáird, one of the greatest living practitioners of the sean-nós ("old-style") tradition of Celtic singing, returns with Foxlight. In the interim, he was prominently featured as a co-collaborator with composer Donnacha Dennehy on the classical work Grá Agus Bás, which was written for him. Foxlight was produced by guitarist Leo Abrahams, who, if anything, deserves co-billing here. He assembled the players, assisted in arrangements, and presents O Lionáird as a singular artist. For the first time in the singer's career, he presents more original than traditional material, though with sean-nós so deeply embedded in his DNA, even these pieces carry the tradition's legacy. One needn't listen much further than opener "The Heart of the World" for evidence. A sparse instrumental drone of cello and effects introduce it, with guitars slowly cutting into its center. Bird songs, piano, percussion, and more guitars pick up the tempo as O Lionáird opens the song up into a rich pastorale. Singing in Gaelic, his lyric resembles the later poems of James Wright. Of the traditional tunes here, including "Fainne Geal an Lae" (The Bright Ring of Day), he takes less license than he has in the past. The melody, immediately apparent, is treated with acoustic guitars, ringing pristinely in the backdrop as his rich tenor flows through the mix. The title track could be a spiritual, a hymn to nature itself, a love song, or all simultaneously. Sung in both Gaelic and English, his voice roams in the airiness of Abrahams' mix as guitars, electronic ambience, and backmasked effects float amid cellos and organic percussion. "Daybreak" is a vocal duet with Norwegian singer Sara Marielle Gaup, offering her part in her native Sami tongue, creating something otherworldly in the process. "Hand in Hand," among the most modern-sounding things here, lets O Lionáird employ his falsetto amid textured guitars and chamber strings, while "For the Heavens" is almost a straight Celtic rock song (à la Horslips), with a sweet hook that builds to a thunderous percussive climax. The lyric in the set's longest track, "Seven Suns," was taken from a 16th century poem of prayer. In O Lionáird's voice, the entreaty to the divine (a lament, actually) is populated by tabla drums, shimmering guitars, a ridge-deep bassline, and dry, natural-sounding strings. The more the lyric reaches for the heavens, the singer and instrumentalists root it to the frail flesh and blood of humanity. Foxlight, with its added emphasis on original material, is a gorgeous step forward for O Lionáird. ~ Thom Jurek
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