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Main Category: Celtic/Medieval
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Synth Pop
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1973
Overall rating =

Irish folk de-luxe, although it sure would help if you had your major in advanced Celtic studies.

Best song: NIL SE INA LA

Track listing: 1) Nil Se Ina La; 2) Thios Chois Na Tra Domh; 3) Brian Boru's March; 4) Siobhan Ni Dhuibhir; 5) An Mhaighdean Mhara; 6) Liza; 7) An tOilean Ur; 8) Mrs. McDermott; 9) The Pretty Maid; 10) An Phairc; 11) Harvest Home; 12) Morning Dew; 13) An Bealach Seo 'Ta Romha.

I'm not exactly what you might call a 'Celtic freak' - I don't exactly make yearly pilgrimages to Stonehenge, nor do I spend my spare time gathering mistletoe with authentic sickles, and the closest I have ever come to being pantheistic was praying to the Microsoft deity upon the fifteen hundredth reinstallation of Windows '98. But all the more important it will sound, then, when I say that Clannad's debut album, which they'd won the privilege of recording through participation in a local folk music festival, is indisputably cool - and that dressing up in white robes and sacrificing to Old Man Willow should not be considered an obligatory requirement for being able to enjoy it.

It sure might help if you took a little basic Irish, though. That's the main problem with "authentic" Clannad records: on most of the songs, the band members sing in their native language. (In fact, that tradition would not die down even after they had achieved international success - the percentage of Gaelic on the band's records is surprisingly high up to this day). As for good translations of their lyrics, they are rather hard to come by. It is a hoot, though, to follow the Irish lyrics and witness the horrors of today's Irish orthography - if you thought English orthography was a pain in the ass, look at the Irish one. And just to give you a brief idea, keep in mind that the lead singer, Maire Brennan, is to be pronounced "Moya"; the main guitarist, Ciaran Brennan is to be pronounced "Keeron"; and Padraig Duggan (guitars, mandolins) is supposed to be pronounced "Poric", even if, of course, it's the exact same name that we usually know as Patrick.

In any case, Irish, English, Scottish, or Quenya, a large chunk of these songs are endowed with proverbial folkish beauty. As my former colleague reviewer Brian Burks once remarked, the "folk" music of today betrays its name by not being intended for the real "folk" - rather, it is there for "folkies", or "folkie intellectuals" - while the actual "folk" mostly devours the stuff that is force-fed to it by MTV and its brethren; with traditional cultures dying out and marginalising all over the world, this is a slightly sad, but more or less given piece of reality. But outside of grim statistical calculations, who the hell gives a damn anyway? As long as "folk music" can be that beautiful, I don't mind if it joins classical music and progressive rock in terms of audience quantity.

Not being an expert on the matter, I have a suspicion that on some level Clannad weren't all that different from lots of other Irish folk bands at the time - they might not even have been the best. That said, let's give 'em their due: they managed to break through, while most of the others did not. It's not as if any of the elements on this album were superbaffling; rather it's this surprisingly organic and wholesome way in which everything is tied in. Maire Brennan is a brilliant vocalist, for sure, but that's only one part of the charm - the other part is the band's instrumental power. None of the British folk-rock (or "prog-folk", for that matter) bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span manage to thrill me with their instrumentalism in the same manner as Clannad do. There's not the slightest allusion to "rock" on this album - there ain't even a single electric instrument - but it manages to be loud and powerful where necessary all the same. Even the band's moderate and probably semi-improvised "jam sessions", inserted into some of the tunes, are catchy and eminently "followable", if you know what I mean. The instrumentals form excellent background music as well, and maybe even more than just that.

The one natural flaw is, of course, monotonousness - folk junkies will be only too happy, but for me it gets a little hard to sit through all of the thirteen songs, especially considering my very limited - to put it mildly - knowledge of Irish and general penchant for something more ass-kicking than a bunch of proverbially beautiful Celtic ballads. (Hey, I'm still learning to do this. Don't write me off as another hopelessly lost AC/DC fan or something).

Still, if my opinion on the matter counts at all, the first two songs are absolute masterstrokes. 'Nil Se Ina La' is a 'drinking song', with a tremendously catchy chorus (if you can sing it, that is), and an extended mid-section which is just one of those 'jams' I mentioned above. It would actually be stretched out even further in concert, with lots of improv from different band members, but here the length is just perfect, and the flute, guitar, and bass soloing full of energy - this is what I meant by being able to rock without any electric instruments in sight. It being a "folksy" jam and all, of course, the resulting feeling is pretty weird - not so much aggressive as ecstatic - but anything that fails being rationally explained in a silly review is worth its weight in gold, you know.

The song immediately following it, 'Thios Chois Na Tra Domh' ('Down By The Beach'), is a pretty ballad with a slightly nostalgic feel - the lyrics seem to tell a story of an old person wandering through a cemetery where his friends and relatives have been buried. Maire certainly was far from an "old" person in 1973, but she conveys the atmosphere beautifully, while either Ciaran or Padraig produce a cute mandolin-like sound with the guitar. It is this little "trilling" trick that adds extra pizzazz to the song, distinguishing it from the also-elegant, but not-as-memorable performances as, for instance, 'An Mhaighdean Mara', a song about a mermaid who marries a mortal man - over in two minutes and leaving behind a warm feeling but not much of a distinct impression.

If you're really desperate, though, there's no need to panic: there are a few songs in English around here, although I wouldn't say they're among the best. 'The Pretty Maid' is nice, but... well, it's nothing that any of those notorious British folk-rock ensembles couldn't muster. Alas, Maire isn't singing on it, and her brother's vocals are hardly special. (Although, given the fact that the tune is sung from a man's perspective, I suppose we can't really hold it to them). The real English highlight is the notorious Tim Rose composition 'Morning Dew', so beloved, for some reason, among British hard rock pros that both Jeff Beck and Nazareth recorded glorious versions of their own. Here it is presented preserving its original, quiet and mournful vibe, with an intricate and dexterous finger-pickin' acoustic arrangement and the most complex vocal arrangements on the album.

In between all the vocal highlights is sandwiched the Standard Gentleman's Kit of Instrumentals, which range from the somewhat dreary and repetitive ('Brian Boru's March', a gloomy ode to one of the land's fallen heroes, moving at a snail's pace and mainly just repeating the same tired melodic line over and over) to the predictable Celtic dance tunes that were such a big influence on Jethro Tull and other prog rockers ('Mrs McDermott', 'Harvest Home'). The only real failure, though, is the very stupid-sounding 'Liza', the only "upbeat" tune on the album; it is a good thing that it is also sung in Irish, for I have a deep suspicion that it's really silly and childish, and that just doesn't fit in with the rest. The chorus alone, with all the male members of the band going 'Liiiiiiiza, Liiiiiiiiza' as if they were entertaining three-year olds at a kid festival, makes me want to blush.

The important thing is not to make the mistake of treating it all like background music, because, well, just because it is sung in a foreign language does not mean it doesn't have to be listened to. This is really no more background music than AC/DC - the songs all sound the same but are all different. And, by all means, there is nothing worse than Irish orthography about them.



Year Of Release: 1974

Even better. What I like about Celtic folk is that these old Gaulish bards were so dang creative - they didn't just take one or two simple melodies and stick tons of different lyrics on them, they were really skilled in establishing all kinds of various patterns and moods. And dang it, seems that for Clannad II the band had selected the cream of the cream of traditional Celtic tunes. Yeah, I know the language barrier is the language barrier, but I don't give a damn about no language barrier when we have to deal with such amazingly catchy tunes as 'Dheanainn Sugradh' and 'Teidhir Abhaile Riu'. One might say that their catchiness is exclusively due to the monotonous, shockingly repetitive choruses, but repetitive choruses are an obligatory element in most folk ballads, and complaining about that would be similar to complaining about how reading is bad for one's health because it overstrains one's eyes. Personally, I find the melody of 'Teidhir Abhaile Riu' ('Go Home With You') stuck in my head all the time, and that certainly means something.

But that's just one side of the story. (Oh, by the way, 'Dheanainn Sugradh' has some drumming on it - geez, what an innovation). This album also has two of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded by the band, 'Coinleach Ghlas An Fhomhair' ('The Green Stubble-Field Of Autumn') and 'Chuaigh Me Na Rosann'. The former is nostalgic and introspective in its essence, the latter is a deeply desperate and moving dirgey kind of song that truly gives me creeps - that's why I nver really tried to find its translation in the Internet. These two songs are the very essence of gorgeousness, and therefore their charm is unexplainable until you actually got to hear 'em. They are the perfect material for trying to analyse the profound relation between the external side of music and the inner feelings - everything is stripped down, just an acoustic and Maire singing, with an occasional flute joining in the mix to perform a brief solo part, and yet, the spectrum of feelings ranges from majesty to beauty to serenity to chastity to... well, whatever.

It's not that Celtic music is without its flaws, of course - the diversity is still limited by a number of factors, like, for instance, the fact that the melody of 'An Gabhar Ban' ('The White Goat') is more or less the same as the one in 'Teidhir Abhaile Riu', just in a different key. And when it comes to discussing such an instrumental as 'Rince Briotanach', I'm very much puzzled as to whether it's an example of sancta simplicitas or just a case of a very simple nursery-style melody played over and over in a kinda dumb way. More probable is the former, because on second listen, the melody is not as simple as it was on the first.

There's still a bit of filler left, too, although I must say that Clannad II is far more secure in that respect than its predecessor: nearly every song has at least something to say, except for maybe a couple weaker instrumentals. Well, 'By Chance It Was', which is the only case of singing in English here, is also the least impressive number, with a very rudimentary and generic melody. I know - it must have been an intentional provocation. Hmm, any chance of proving that Clannad supported the Republican Army of Ireland? I'm also not terribly impressed with Maire's accappella singing on 'Gaoth Barra Na dTonn'. Okay, so she can sing on key without instrumental backing. So can most other talented female (and male) vocalists in this world. What's the point?

But forget it; I just wanted to explain why I stole away one star in this review. Essentially, Clannad II is one of the band's highest points and an essential purchase for anybody even remotely interested in that kind of Celtic folk which is authentic, artistic and commercial at the same time. (By 'commercial' I mean 'accessible to the general public', of course - the record probably didn't ever see the light of day outside Ireland on its release). And to think of the stimulus it gives you for bettering your Gaelic! Sure beats Tolkien in that respect.



Year Of Release: 1976

Third time in a row gets a bit tedious. My first guess, though, is that the band simply took all the cream of traditional Irish songs they could find and slapped them onto the first two albums. Thus, Dulaman comes out a bit flat in retrospect; I mean, for Chrissake, even considering the Celtic passion for melody and beauty, how far can you go if you keep overusing the same stuff over and over? Heck, while I did rave a bit about all kinds of little untrivial developments going on in most of the compositions on the earlier albums, here it's the opposite. Almost half of these songs are based on more or less the same basic jig structure, and while a good Irish jig is definitely nothing to worry about, too much jigging can get a little nauseating with time, can't it? I know it can, particularly when after some especially pretty Maire Brennan ballad, when you're just getting ready to launch into something special again, you get to hear that 'dum-dudum-dudum-dudum-dudum-dudum du DU-dum' and it's like 'ooooh, no not again...'.

Apart from that tiny whiny little complaint, I don't have anything against Dulaman either. On a basic level of perception, more Clannad is just better Clannad, or, at least, not any worse than before. The title track, presumably about a lady and several of her courtiers with one of whom she eventually runs away, has yet another of these extremely memorable and addictive refrains, like 'Teidhir Abhaile Riu' on the previous album. Maire gets her usual 'sensitive ballad' standard on 'Siuil A Ruin', a mixed English-Gaelic medieval lamentative ballad with alternating tempos and yet another repetitive chorus that still works on every level of conscience. The centerpiece of the album, though, I intuitively feel in 'Eirgh Suas a Stoirin' ('Rise Up My Darling'), which, despite the rather simplistic acoustic arrangement, is still the 'deepest' piece on the entire record, with lush power emanating from Maire's vocal cords, stern backing vocals, a subtle flute background adding a little touch of heavenly majesty, and a five-minute length that's fully justified. Okay, not fully. It's, like, twenty-three seconds way too long. If it were twenty-two seconds long, I'd probably add another half star to the album. (I'm playing a really formal kind of guy here, in case somebody needs a hint.)

Apart from that, you get your typical emotional instrumentals and your typical accappella number ('dTigeas A Dhamsa', with an excellent vocal arrangement between Maire and the boys). And most of the rest of this stuff just gets you a-jig-a-jiggin'.

I don't know, maybe I'm just tired of the general style, but hey, I don't get tired of great stuff, see. This stuff is apparently not great at all; instead, it's kinda generic and - even - formulaic, much as I hate the word. Here I am sitting in a dark room and enjoying all that great mystical Celtic stuff and then , all of a sudden - wham! - comes the realization that even this great mystical Celtic stuff is not endless and at a certain point is bound to metamorphose into something generic. Oooh, that hurts. Man, does that ever heart. I was really moved to tears on the second Clannad album, but I'm not while listening to Dulaman. I go back to Clannad II and shed some more tears. I go back to Dulaman and there you go - nothing. Somebody give me some onions willya?

Ah well. Everything gets exhausted from time to time. Just a few words, though, to those weird 'Clannad purists' who complain about the band actually 'selling out' by embracing rock and electronic instrumentation on their later releases: whatever results this 'sellout' actually led to, it was at least better than just a stupid and pointless stagnation by endlessly rehashing the formula with subsequently weaker and weaker results. I mean, hell, nobody ever kills a hen that lays golden eggs, but the day you find out that the egg in question has metamorphosed from gold to gilded, better start thinking about replacing the rooster. Get it?



Year Of Release: 1978

What's the main point of a normal band releasing a live record? Why, to prove that they sound different on stage, of course - the Who and the Rolling Stones would usually break their backs trying to prove to their audiences that they weren't the same psycho wackos that their studio records showed them to be. Or perhaps it's to prove that they can actually reproduce their overcomplex, unique studio music live onstage - like Genesis or Yes, whose live audiences' main motto could have been best expressed as 'No kidding!'. Or perhaps it's just to make a quick buck - like late-period Aerosmith who only started making the big bucks after turning into absolute dreck.

But what's the main point of Clannad releasing a live record? Why, to present some previously unreleased songs, of course!

Seriously now, apart from the occasional feeble handclap (I don't know where the concert was recorded - some kind of English club, most probably, as the band members speak both Irish and English, but mainly English) and the actual band announcements, there's nothing that distinguishes Clannad's live sound from their studio sound, and I actually believe that most of their studio output was also recorded live, live in the studio, that is. Of course, they really prove themselves to be the professionals that everybody knows they are, but everybody knows that they are professionals that they really prove themselves to be, no?

So it's actually good that they don't reproduce any of the numbers from the previous three records on stage. The only exception is the old trusty 'Nil Se Ina La' from the first album (that was the bouncy album opener, if these Irish titles ever happened to confuse you). This one, however, is mostly taken as an excuse to 'jam' - all the players take some time to [pick your choice] (a) display their awesome skill at their relative instrument; (b) create a unique and inimitable atmosphere with their relative instrument; (c) wank off a bit using their relative instrument, before returning back to the base. I actually like the jam very much, but I admit that others' level of tolerance might be somewhat lower.

The other stuff is just more Irish and British folk tunes, meshed in with some more instrumentals; no better and not any worse than any of the preceding bunch of tunes. The flute is very prominent on most of the tunes, but, of course, it's the twin guitar interplay of Ciaran Brennan and Padraig Duggan that do most of the work, and quite often I like to just forget about actually following the melody and just concentrate on that interplay - one guitar in each speaker, kinda like some folk AC/DC, heh heh. Come to think of it, though, it was the same way on all the studio records, and it was really clever. If you have two acoustic guitars playing at the same time, better place them in different speakers or fear the consequences!

If we're talking highlights, I'd probably have to pick the instrumental 'Planxty Burke' - the main theme is really impressive and memorable. It's got that kind of strange playfulness to it, you know, an optimistic melody with melancholic overtones. I don't really understand how people can despise this kind of music: it's music, you know, music par excellence, performed by people who really know a thing or two about music. Listen to it, gulp it down, respect your elders! Unless you're talking Russian folk music, of course, which just about completely sucks according to my tastes. It's just so dang 'collective' and so dang pompous in all its manifestations. (I know I don't sound all that patriotic, but why should I? Folk music is not my country's main forte, if you didn't already know that). And, of course, the beautiful ballad 'Down By The Sally Gardens', distinguished by a gorgeous flute line and Maire's compassionate lead vocal. Aw dammit, I'm all out of adjectives: this is the fourth time in a row that I actually review the same album, and you don't know how hard it is to come up with new epithets. What am I, Roget's thesaurus? Surely you already get the drift!

You'll never find the record anyway, so don't mind.



Year Of Release: 1980

This one is mostly notorious for featuring Eithne Brennan, better known as Enya for short, on a Clannad record for the first time, as a band member. Seeing as how it's freaking hard to come by reliable Clannad info, I'm not too sure as to what is her function on the album; most, if not all, of the lead vocals are still sung by Maire, so I guess Enya is mainly there on background vocals and occasional percussion and keyboards. But, of course, it's not so much the actual function rather than the mere fact that does matter. The first appearance of the Queen of Celtic New Age!

As for everything else, well, it is still not much of a departure from the classic sound. Everything is still essentially the same: traditional songs in traditional trusty arrangements. Yet certain signs of 'creative development' already start to show through. For instance, the first song starts out as a simple pleasant guitar ballad, but then it turns out that only half of it has vocals, and the other half is fully instrumental, with first the flutes and then, get this, an electric piano actually stepping in for a one-minute solo before the end! That's hardly folk purism for you. It is, of course, extremely meek to be considered "innovation", but then again, back in the day it was probably a bold step forward for Clannad. No doubt things like that could already earn them the "sellout" tag way before they became real sellouts. But then again, I can understand them. It's obviously no fun being a rigid purist all your life - and not just because this way you can't make your big bucks, but also because this way you can't truly state your uniqueness. Clearly, Clannad were among the best Irish bands to do their stuff, but they sure as hell weren't the only ones. And they had already spent a decade licking the traditional piece of pie where, say, Bob Dylan only spent about two years busy doing nothing that was inherently Bob Dylan-esque. The time had come to move on, doncha think?

In any case, the opening tune is as far as this experimentation actually goes. None of the other eight tunes go within half a mile of an electric instrument, unless there was something really really subtle that I missed, and they're all standard fare Clannad - everything perfect and pleasant, but not really as emotionally uplifting as some of the older stuff. In fact, it comes dangerously close to being sappy; there was a certain mystique and a certain rough primal edge about the band's first two albums, but all of that seems to have vanished by the time of Crann Ull. Even the obligatory Maire spotlights (acoustic and Maire and nothing else) tend to become stale: 'Tis The Last Rose Of Summer', for instance, is solemn and majestic but kinda faceless, more like an operatic aria than something truly heartfelt. Not that I have anything against operatic arias, but that is definitely not what this band started with and this is definitely not what I want from a Celtic folk band. Folk music should symbolize life, not ossification.

That said, sometimes even ossification can be nice enough. The lute instrumental 'Planxty Browne', for instance, is absolutely folksalicious, even if it's essentially one basic jiggy phrase repeated over and over again. The band singalong 'Bacach Shile Andai' is also fairly reminiscent of the good old days, with immaculately arranged harmonies and a great friendly atmosphere. However, for some reason it's also the only band singalong on here; Maire rules supreme throughout with ballad after ballad, so I guess the 'obligatory Maire spotlight' phrase was a bit out of context. The opposition is more like 'Maire sings along to a spare acoustic part' vs. 'Maire sings on a full-fledged full-arranged epic'. And they all merge together, apart from one more - unremarkable - instrumental. I just guess they were seriously running out of prime material.

Keep in mind, though, that I'll never give an 'authentic' Clannad album anything less than three stars anyway. There's just something so goddamn beautiful about all this. I guess an album like Cran Ull is essentially the equivalent of a solid AC/DC album for hard rock, so hey, why should we complain? This is, like, Clannad's For Those About To Rock. Kick ass guitar tones and all.


FUAIM ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1982

It's very nice how, if you title your album in a language other than English, you're able to get away with the simplest, and sometimes even most banal, things possible. Name your album Sound and you're likely to get a few blasts - like, 'what, does he consider his album to be the true "sound" as opposed to all the others?' or, 'what, didn't he happen to have any other ideas for the title?'. But name it Fuaim, and that's a whole different story. The Gaelic mystique and the breath of the centuries and the ancient clanging of medieval swords and...

...oh wait, I forgot these guys were Gaelic, so they're justified to do that sort of namecalling. Now the musical development on this album is an entirely different story. Cran Ull introduced a couple electric instruments into the band's sound for a brief moment, but Fuaim marks a far more bold transition. They haven't "sold out" yet, because the songs are still essentially the same stuff they'd been singing for a decade now; three English titles, everything else Gaelic and the melodies never changed much since Clannad, which is understandable. However, the arrangements are an entirely different thing altogether.

It's like the band had intentionally unleashed itself on the album. Electric instruments abound - you have guitars and pianos, and prominent use of synthesizers on several tracks. You even have saxophones on a couple tracks (okay, saxophones aren't electric instruments but I'm just giving you an overall idea of the changes in the sound). There are still isolated islands of pure acoustic material on the record, and granted, whenever there are electric instruments, they're toned down so as not to overshadow the acoustic basis for the song. But the very fact that Clannad have "gone electric" was probably just as shocking for Celtic folkies as Dylan going electric on his 1965 albums.

The very first song, the Maire-sung singalong-campfire-ditty 'Na Buachailli Alainn', doesn't seem different at all, although I suspect that a few electric guitar notes have been buried somewhere very very deep in the mix; I might be mistaken, but that would be entirely due to the intricate arrangements of several interlocking acoustic guitar melodies. However, the second song, 'Mheall Si Lena Glorthai Me', already has a very prominent - and well-played - electric guitar solo which really adds to the power of the song and doesn't detract from the "authenticity" at all, if you ask me.

The near-instrumental 'Ni La Na Gaoithe La Na Scoilb?' is probably the most formula-breaking track on here. With a faint synthesizer background and melodic patterns that are totally un-Clannad (I think some of the piano chords on that track display a strong classical influence, actually), it sounds nothing like the band had ever done before, and when the sax break comes in, they almost end up playing modern lounge jazz... the sax break, to tell the truth, is pretty bad, but how could we expect a band that spent ten years doing nothing but cover versions of Gaelic songs sound good at modern jazz? Kudos to them anyway for at least trying something thus different. Still, it comes off better when they just do their schtick with more sophisticated instrumentation, like on 'Buireadh An Phosta', where the song is introduced by a moody bluesy synthline and also includes occasional minimalistic sax passages while Maire sings one of her typically pretty melodies backed with an acoustic guitar as the main instrument.

Melody-wise, though, I think that 'Strayed Away' is by far the best song on here. The occasional tiny outbursts of slide guitar and harmonica are wonderful and provide great contrast to Maire's vocal hooks as she sings a touching ode to all the strangers and wanderers out there. Personally, I don't remember anything similar to this majesty on Crann Ull, although this might just be a strictly personal thing. The other two English-sung tracks are very nice, too - particularly the funny jiggy 'Lish Young Buy-A-Broom', but unfortunately, they're based on melodies already recycled a million times, so there's nothing that would endear them to me in an original manner. Still good songs.

I'm a-guessin' that opposition to the "commercialization" of Ireland's folk band number one must have been pretty strong; despite all the major changes in sound, enough care has been taken to ensure this still sounds like 'genuine' folk. No true revolution so far, just a meek attempt at diversifying the sonic textures. But even so it adds a tremendous boost to the proceedings; you can no longer accuse Clannad of making all their albums sound the same. (Not that that accusation would have been correct in the first place - folkies are folkies - but then again, how many different albums from a folkie do you really need? In the long run?).



Year Of Release: 1983

We hit the gold with record buyers and we hit the dirt with hardcore fans. Still, Magical Ring is no Sirius yet: the All-Music Guide may classify it as 'Celtic New Age' for all they want, it's not. It's just another step forward in mainstreaming their sound. "We bring the Celtic into adult contemporary!" should have been their slogan, but fortunately it seems to be vice versa, as the songs are still mostly Celtic-based par excellence. Even if the band actively tries itself as songwriters - look at how goddamn many originals they have placed on this puppy!

Eithne-Enya quit the band at this point (apparently, the kickstart she gave 'em really pushed 'em down the highway and she thought the older brothers and sisters could do fine without her), so we're back to the basics. And there are still some faint traces of the "basics" throughout, although some of them confuse me: like, it's kinda hard for me to understand why they decided to do a remake of 'Coinleach Glas An Fhomhair' from the debut album. It's a beautiful ballad for sure, and wonderfully played, BUT it's just as wonderfully acoustic as it was before. They don't even give it a synth background or anything. So what's the reason? Hoping that the increasing hordes of Clannad aficionados finally get a chance to hear a long-lost gem? Did they know Ring was gonna go gold or what?

On the opposite side of this business, the band also faintly dips their feet in a different kind of songwriting. The synth-drenched soft-rocker 'I See Red' certainly employs certain Celtic elements (mainly shown through the use of various instruments that accompany and embellish the main melody), but in its essence is more like a typical pop song. It's a good first try, though, and the creepy atmosphere they aim for almost hits me in all the right places. There's just so much going on in that song - they take all kinds of generic elements from both adult contemporary (the moody minimalistic synthesizer background) to Celtic (see above) and combine them so that the overall effect is anything but generic. The mandolin riff in particular is beautiful, as are Maire's vocals - when they're placed within the context of a "normal" pop song, you immediately notice how much more intimate and genuine and honest they actually sound in comparison to some glossy formulaic "diva" like, uh, Celine Dion, for instance. So hooray for that particular first - even if the song does feel a little bit out of place in between two gorgeous traditional-flavoured acoustic Irish ditties ('Coinleach' and 'Ta Me 'mo Shui').

There are two more "pop-oriented" English-language compositions on here, though, obviously the kind of "consumer-attractive" numbers that served that decisive purpose of conquering the market, but being the filthy sell-out soul I am, preferring nauseating mainstream commercial albums like Meet The Residents to exotic complex artistic statements like Foreigner 4, I dig the hell out of both. 'Passing Time' wins over my trust with the beautiful recorder line and the optimistic singalong chorus - and also with the fact that it's so intimate and quiet when they could have cheapened the main melody and transformed it into a cheer-raising festival-closing anthem or something like that. And 'Newgrange', setting out to popularize the Stonehenge mystery (unless the 'magical ring' in question is not Stonehenge, in which case, pardon my ignorance), certainly achieves its goal and does more than that. The gloomy 'rum de rum 'rud a derimo' chorus is powerful and totally cheese-less, which you certainly could expect from a bunch of "we're spreading Celtic mystery wherever we go!" people.

If anything, Magical Ring suffers somewhat from being too quiet as opposed to some of the better Clannad albums. No jigs, no passionate fiddle battles, nothing like that. The closest numbers to "energetic" on here are the male-sung 'Tower Hill' with slightly less lethargic percussion than usual, and the closing 'Thios Fe'n Chosta' which actually has an electric guitar solo at the end. But, of course, that's nothing compared to, say, the passion and the heat generated by 'Nil Se Ina La', for instance. You really have to prepare yourself for this - like I said, New Age this is not (not yet), but you'll hardly get a chance to tap your foot either. And while there are no bad songs on the album, I would be hard pressed to name any "strokes of genius" (apart from the re-recorded 'Coinleach...', of course). They're getting decent at songwriting, and 'I See Red' and those other two tunes I highlighted are enjoyable as heck, but I do miss the heavenly odes of yore. I guess selling out does have its problems, after all, but then again, I guess being in a traditionally-oriented band, while it might be fun initially, eventually becomes such a painful yoke around your neck it's kinda useless for me to complain about it.


LEGEND **1/2

Year Of Release: 1984

It's a goddamn hard predicament I'm finding myself in. Let's see, if you were a web reviewer and some stranger came up to you on the street and said, 'hey buddy, how's about reviewing this here soundtrack from the Eighties' Robin of Sherwood TV Series?', what would be your initial reaction?

Now get this: I have a self-imposed obligation to review the soundtrack from the Eighties' Robin of Sherwood TV series, simply because the music to the series was written by Clannad and released on this album as if it were a regular Clannad album. (And goddammit, it does sound like a regular Clannad album of the time except that about half of the numbers are instrumentals or feature minimum vocals.) And I hate reviewing soundtracks normally. When your record ends with a one minute composition called 'Battles' and it's actually just a bit of pounding on your big bass drum and a little bit of acoustic strumming, you normally say it sucks or something like that. But how can it suck? It's a friggin' soundtrack! It probably provided the perfect background to Robin landing a bunch of arrows in the Sheriff's fat ass. Not that I know - I've never seen the series and wouldn't want to (I had my fair share of Robin Hood movies already, thank you. Can one think of a more overexploited medieval motive in modern day filming?).

One important thing to note: since this was a soundtrack to a medieval-themed film, Clannad naturally relied a little less on electronica here, and a little more on the "authentic-sounding" instruments. Not that it's not at all electronic: synths are used throughout as an atmospheric background, and dynamic keyboard parts crop up quite often as well, but they manage to be subtly integrated within the acoustic/mandolin/chime/drums framework instead of sticking out. In that respect, Legend might actually be a good buy for folk purists who detest late period Clannad.

So anyway, there is a bunch of pretty Maire-vocalized ballads on here. 'Ancient Forest' is relatively upbeat in the usual Celtic kind of way, while 'Now Is Here' aims for the usual ultra-slow gorgeousness. They were probably perfect when used in the series. But on their own, they don't really stand much competition with the earlier stuff. The upbeatness isn't so head-spinningly infectious as before, and the gorgeousness seems kinda formulaic (which is excusable, of course - people very rarely make their masterpieces while writing preordered music).

The instrumentals aren't that much better. "Mood" was the word of the day for Clannad, and only like two or three songs possess any kind of energy. 'Robin (The Hooded Man)', apparently the title theme to the series, is so muffled down that even though the main synth part sounds like they're aiming for majesty, it passes away totally unnoticed. And the endless chant 'Robin, the Hooded Man, Robin, the Hooded Man', at first looks stupid, then starts getting annoying. Yeah we all know he's the Hooded Man already, this is not Sesame Street for Chrissake.

'Together We' has a little jiggy bit to it - but so perfunctory and lazy it almost hurts. The band's harmonies on 'Strange Land' and 'Scarlet Inside' also seem strained and forgettable, even if 'Strange Land' is arguably the best number on here; whoever had the genius to base the composition on those two grim bass piano notes that appear after each pause gets a nod and a hug from me. And all in all, I can certainly see the hand of the masters throughout - as usual, they are able to get around the usual Celtic cliches with enough minor inventiveness and taste so as not to appear pathetic - but I just don't see their souls in this project. In fact, I'd like to hope they didn't have their soul in this business: what kind of an authentic tradition-respecting Celtic-based band are you if you're agreeing to set your music to a friggin' TV series? On Robin Hood?

The album's biggest advantage is that it's so short - going just a bit over thirty minutes. It doesn't include everything they wrote for the series, though (the entire third set, for instance, is not represented); there actually were plans for a Legend II album in 1986, but fortunately they decided to pass. Although, of course, in this era of CD dictatorship... better embace yourself for a digitally remastered, repackaged edition of the album with DOUBLED length, new liner notes, and Robin of Loxley's personal autograph. Coming out in 2156 or so, provided anybody can still remember who Robin of Loxley actually was by that time.



Year Of Release: 1985

Ouuukeeeeey... now this is just openly offensive. There's no edge to this album whatsoever, and all the good stuff I detected on Magical Ring is pretty much gone. There's just way, way too much emphasis on "capturing that ethereal Celtic mystique for the select few", and unless you were there with the druids and the pixies two thousand years ago, I won't trust you if you say this is "true" to the Celtic spirit. Not that it really matters - we accept variations on the Celtic spirit for a decent entry fee as well, thank you very much - but then there's also the factor of boredom, and this IS a boring record.

For those, at least, who have lived with Maire's voice for more than a decade or have at least arrived at this album in chronological order. 'Caislean Uir' opens the album with a two minute accapella chant, technically gorgeous, spiritually quite generic, if you ask me, and it pretty much sets the mood for the entire piece. Now this is already seriously New Age-influenced, yet very simplistic and bland as far as New Age Celtic is concerned (just about any Enya album beats this one into the dust, even if I'm not the greatest Enya fan in the world). Forget about hooks, they're not for this record. And you can also forget about instrumental talent, as most of the album is carried by pianos and synths, hardly the most natural combination for the Clannad of old. And already the second song, 'The Wild Cry', brings on soft-jazz adult contemporary saxophones that push the album even further into the "easy listening" territory.

Even when Clannad resort to the trick of yesteryear and toss in a few upbeat pop songs, they fail; 'Closer To Your Heart' is no hair metal ballad for sure, but excuse me if I don't go wild over the song's entirely forgettable and entirely powerless guitar melody (totally devoid of the proverbial Celtic mystique either). And just to confirm the fact that Clannad are now seriously in it for the money, they drag Bono (!!) inside the studio to add guest vocals on 'In A Lifetime'. I'll be the last to deny Bono's vocal power, of course, but they only work well in the context of his own band; 'In A Lifetime' is just more draggy adult contemporary, all mist and atmosphere and Maire vs. Bono and nothing to laud.

I'll give 'em some understanding of "taste" - every track is immaculately produced, and definitely Macalla was a bitch of an album to create back when this form of music was in its infancy. But this form of music was boring already in its infancy. If you want atmosphere, give me interesting atmosphere. You want songs with rhythms? Fine, gimme some hooks then. Apart from the 'taste' factor, I don't see what really separates Macalla from your basic Top 20 on the MTV - pop songs with no traceable melodies, 'sall. I could care less if they're Celtic-influenced or bubblegum-influenced.

Funny enough, two songs at the very end of the album are almost good. 'Journey's End', in dire contrast to everything else, is almost infuriatingly catchy, with martial drum rhythms and quirky little true-Celtic guitar melodies. After a while you start to realize that the song merely reworks the melody of 'Oh Susannah', but by the time you do that, you're already in love with the song and you wouldn't want to hold back on that. And 'Northern Skyline' is - strange, isn't it? - the only classic-style Maire Brennan anthemic ballad on the album (oh, I mean, there's plenty of Maire balladeering on here, but remember, every Clannad record used to have at least two or three "absolute Maire" kind of songs, if you get my drift). It's upbeat and pleasing, with a few inspired synth solos along the way.

However, even these two numbers wouldn't rank alongside true Clannad classics, I'm just selecting them here because they're a little bit more outstanding than everything else. A truly disastrous move, and one that I cannot fully understand - surely they had enough songwriting talent in the band to throw in some solid melodic lines as well? Or at least select some more of those old tunes (can't go wrong with that one, eh)? Hey guys, I'm not bashing you for going commercial, I'm an old pathetic sellout myself! I gave ABBA a three, even if they had less musical talent all put together than the left toe of Blixa Bargeld! All I'm saying is, I don't wanna browse the "New Age And Nature Sounds" shelves to buy your records, no really.


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