Volume 2: Release
Afro Celt Sound System, 2012
Three years on and over 200,000 record sales from the release of the critically acclaimed debut "Volume 1: Sound Magic", Afro Celt Sound System are now recognised as one of the most innovative and eclectic groups to emerge from the '90s meltdown. With the release of their powerful second album, the scene was set for a summer assault on this year's major European festivals.
"Volume 2 : Release" is the realisation of a year spent writing collectively. It's been a difficult time - a period of traumatic realignment after the unexpected death of keyboard player Jo Bruce - but, after much soul searching, the band emerged to produce a dynamic and emotionally charged album that was destined to become one of the year's landmarks.
Simon Emmerson and Martin Russell's multi-layered production has many hidden depths, bringing out the delicacy of the acoustic instruments - harp, kora, talking drum, bodhran, djembe, whistle, guitar, Gaelic and African vocals - but placing them in a totally immersive Pan European context.
The classic Celtic and West African flavour, with its inherent energy and joy, was offset by a bitter-sweet sadness, interpreted through the dynamic and expressive playing of the guest performers - Nigel Eaton on hurdy gurdy and Michael McGoldrick and Ronan Browne on uilleann pipes from the new generation of young folk musicians, Youth on bass, Dhol Foundation's Johnny Kalsi on dhol drums and tablas, and Sinead O'Connor on guest vocals.
Volume 2 represents the transformation of a project, conceived at the 1996 Real World Recording Week, into a cohesive band with a unique sound and style. The Afro Celts have made the record they collectively wanted to make, forged out of over 100 live gigs and TV appearances; a record that reflects the playing skills and personalities of the individual core members: Simon Emmerson (guitars, programming, keyboards), N'Faly Kouyate (vocals, kora, balafon), Iarla O Lionáird (vocals), James McNally (keyboard, whistle, bodhran, accordion), Myrdhin (Celtic harp), Martin Russell (keyboards, programming, engineering), and Moussa Sissokho (talking drum, djembe).
As Martin Russell says: "Everyone wanted the album to be hard and kicking, to reflect the live attitude of the band. However, we didn't want huge thunderous beats with token African and Celtic sound-bites over the top. We had to create a landscape, where the band's personality could speak for itself."
The Afro Celts are a rare paradox: deeply rooted in some of the oldest musical traditions in the world, they happily collide with cutting edge futuristic sounds and beats - Iarla has a background in the ancient unaccompanied vocal style of West Ireland called Sean Nos; Myrdhin plays a deeply ancestral Breton harp; both N'Faly and Moussa are venerated griots (the West African bardic school of master musicians). Match this alongside Simon's involvement in experimental dance music, and James's background with the irreverent Pogues and Irish hard-core hip hop group Marxman, and you have a band that, in one summer, stormed the stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, played to a full-on dance crowd at Tribal Gathering and followed Skunk Anansie at the Lowlands Festival in Holland, playing to a wildly enthusiastic 20,000 plus crowd of North European MTV rock heads.
Now, with magazines such as i-D reassessing folk music, crafts and culture ("If folk feels too literal and too macro a term for what's happening in music and fashion right now, craft - the reductive act of creation, simple or sophisticated - is where a lot of the most exciting developments are being made." Bethan Cole, March 1999), the reality of the Afro Celt muse becomes all the more poignant in its multi-cultural context.
With Afro Celts, there's no attempt at making authentic Breton, Irish or West African music, people are just themselves. The master musicians in Afro Celts understand their tradition better than any academic; their knowledge is deep and profound. Any criticisms of spurious authenticity and cross-cultural liberalism are dismissed out of hand by the band and seem all the more irrelevant as the Afro Celt modus operandi develops its own momentum that's already carried it way beyond the initial inspiration.
Simon Emmerson: "It's very difficult to get across to people that what we're doing is rooted in my neighbourhood in East London. Our studio is based in the same building as Fat Man Sound System - one of London's oldest; Club Dog are also there; my neighbour runs Jah Youth Sounds; Zion Train live up the road, as does Adrian Sherwood's On U Sound System; within a two mile radius of my house there's been Talvin Singh's club, the first drum and bass sessions, the Whirl-Y-Gig and countless other similar clubs. This is my musical environment.
The album's opener is 'Release', in many ways the band's most personal and autobiographical track. It starts with an ambient drone and ancestral invocation, Iarla O Lionáird's dark vocals sharing the stage with the vocals of Sinead O'Connor.
'Lovers Of Light' takes the concept of the reel, updating it for late '90s consumption without losing the essential raw spirit that was evident with early pioneers such as The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts.
'Eireann' is quite simply a classical Afro Celt song where African and Gaelic vocals flow effortlessly over kora and whistle refrains.
'Urban Aire' moves in slow motion through an urban soundscape, showcasing the hypnotic uilleann pipes of Ronan Browne, mixing seamlessly into 'Big Cat' with its straight-ahead 4/4 bubbling Afro beat centred around N'Faly's balafon, Moussa's talking drum, James's bodhran and the occasional earth shattering intervention of Johnny's dhol drum. James: "The way the bodhran is used on this track and throughout the album, to drive the grooves in conjunction with the African percussion, is unique to this instrument and to the band's sound."
'Even In My Dreams' is an ironic culture clash, mixing a southern Irish militant republican verse with an Irish drinking song, that floats over a dubbed and highly addictive ambi-reggae groove put together by DJ and programmer Ron Aslan.
'Amber' features a heart rending vocal meditation from Iarla and N'Faly; its plaintive late night ambient atmosphere gets taken over by the Celtic harp refrain of 'Hypnotica' - a flowing kora solo by N'Faly and a final heavy North London techno dub deconstruction.
The harder trance-based 'Riding The Waves' is reflective of the band's full-on live set, incorporating traditional Irish and African melodies and live playing with hard-core techno like no other band can.
'I Think Of...' is a personal testament of faith from Iarla, empowered in turn by a thundering West African drum pattern and classic Afro Celt reel. Iarla: "'I Think Of...' is about the band having to dig deeper than it ever feared after Jo's death, and finding essential truths after the despair. We had two choices, and we realised we had to go on."
James: "I guess, to summarise, our style of writing and playing music does not pretend to adhere to any particular traditional style except our own. Together we write Afro Celt music: music rooted in the past that's reaching into the future - that's it. The collaboration of the various musicians within the band was effortless, heartfelt and very harmonious. My faith in the others was constantly rewarded with stunning contributions and performances. It's like we can almost read each other's minds; it's uncanny, transporting and deeply magical."
- It's like a hurricane let loose... ...the spontaneity, the mix of ancient and modern, the black and white, the fluidity and breathless glee. Q Magazine (1999) (UK)