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At one point in the mid-'70s, Horslips seemed poised to become Ireland's answer to Steeleye Span. But they also had a shot at being the next Jethro Tull (only a better hard rock outfit), or maybe Genesis, or even Yes in their folkier moments. Those events never quite happened, but Horslips released half-a-dozen superb albums along the way, becoming Ireland's most acclaimed folk-rock and progressive band.
Horslips were founded in Dublin in 1970 as a quintet playing a brand of folk-based rock music whose only parallel could be found in the early work of Fairport Convention, who themselves had only been together for two or three years. Where Fairport freely mixed British and American folk and folk-rock traditions, however, Horslips drew on their distinctly Irish roots, and were capable of playing straight folk material when the moment called for it, but weren't afraid to turn it up loud and hard, in the best art rock style, on the right songs.
Depending on the moment, Barry Devlin (bass, vocals), John Fean (lead guitar, vocals), Eamonn Carr (drums, vocals), Charles O'Connor (violin, mandolin, vocals), and Jim Lockhart (flute, tin whistle, keyboards, vocals) sounded a bit like either Genesis or Jethro Tull, and actually had stronger original material to draw from than Tull did. Fean, in particular, was equally good at playing soft folk-like passages and loud, ringing electric runs on his instrument, and could easily have held his own in a guitar duel with Martin Barre or Steve Howe, among others. But where Tull (after their first album) became exclusively a vehicle for Ian Anderson's wildman flute antics and complex, pretentious, satiric, and scatological lyrical conceits, Horslips, until their final years, had ample room for each player to show what he did best, and no single member dominated the group. They spent three years gigging constantly in Dublin, tightening and honing their sound to a fine point, and formed their own record company, OATS, to produce and release their debut album, Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part, in 1973.
That first album, with its mixture of traditional Irish folk instruments and a hard art rock sound recalling the Genesis of Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, outsold the work of many established acts in Ireland, and led to a distribution deal with RCA and tours of England and Continental Europe. With the release of their second album, The Tain — a concept album built on Irish mythological sources — in 1973, Horslips began finding an audience on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Their third album, Dancehall Sweethearts (1974), brought them to the United States and Canada on tour, and they followed this up with The Unfortunate Cup of Tea (1975). Neither of these albums was quite as strong as the first two, and both revealed more of a modern rock sound in their music and songwriting. The bandmembers returned to Ireland to take stock of who and what they were and what kind of music they would do.
Horslips returned to their roots with a Christmas album entitled To Drive the Cold Winter Away, released in 1976, which was recorded entirely on acoustic instruments. This record put them back in the center of the folk-rock boom of the '70s, compared favorably with such English electric folk acts as Steeleye Span (with whom they toured) and Fairport Convention. Additionally, as an Irish electric folk-rock band, even though they weren't overtly political, Horslips hooked into the audience of younger Irish-Americans during a period of wide, new ethnic consciousness-raising brought about by the renewed strife in Northern Ireland. They were no more than a cult phenomenon in the U.S., never remotely as popular as the Chieftains (who had a decade's head start and a ton of soundtrack appearances to promote their work), even with Atlantic Records releasing their mid-'70s albums, but it was a bigger cult than they would have had in the late '60s.
In England and Ireland, however, Horslips were a highly successful act, sufficiently popular to justify cutting a double-live album that perfectly captured their repertoire of this period, if not their sound. The group's next studio record, The Book of Invasions (1977), subtitled "A Celtic Symphony," was, like The Tain, inspired by Irish mythology, this time the story of Tuatha De Danann's conquest of ancient pre-Christian Ireland. Released by Dick James' DJM label (which also picked up their earlier albums in England, as Atlantic had in America), this album marked their only entry on the British charts at number 39, and also found a dedicated audience in progressive and folk-rock circles in America. It was an enviable string of releases, but one that they couldn't sustain. Their next album, Aliens, dealing with the lot of the Irish immigrants in America, was less inventive and exciting, and elicited far less enthusiasm from fans and critics. The odds-and-sods collection Tracks from the Vaults, released in Ireland, was a matter of marking time.
The Man Who Built America marked a major change in Horslips, who were now pretty much in the control of Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart — Carr and Fean, with their more folk-oriented approach to music, took a back seat to a more mainstream rock sound. Two additional guitarists, Gus Guest and Declan Sinnott, turned up on the album, which sounded more American and less like Irish folk-based material than any of their prior works — the title track sounds more like John Cougar Mellencamp, or perhaps even Bruce Springsteen (with Lockhart's flute replacing Clarence Clemons' sax, and some gratuitous swirling keyboards) than the work of the group responsible for "The High Reel."
By this time, they were trying to compete in a wholly different idiom and arena, and there wasn't much left of the original Horslips. Short Stories/Tall Tales (1980) was the last of Horslips' original albums, and was followed by one more concert record culled from their final days, the hard-rocking Belfast Gigs. Carr and Fean later worked together in an R&B-based band called Zen Alligator before reuniting with Charles O'Connor in a folk outfit called Host, and Fean has recorded with Nikki Sudden and Simon Carmody. Meanwhile, Horslips were the object of two retrospective collections released in Ireland and England. Fortunately for Horslips, they retained ownership of their music through the OATS label, and this helped facilitate reissues on compact disc.