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Album Review

Five years after the award-winning Invisible Fields, Iarla Ó 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 Ó 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 Ó 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 Ó 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 Ó 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 Ó Lionáird.


Genre: World

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

With his ultra-rich vocals and large repertoire of traditional Irish songs, Iarla Ó Lionáird (pronounced ear-lah o'linnard) has taken the world of Celtic folk music by storm. One of Ireland's leading singers of the traditional old-timey style, Ó Lionáird has continued to build on his traditional roots. In addition to recording as a soloist, he's helped to bring the Afro-Celt Sound System to international attention. In a review of his solo album, Seven Steps to Mercy, wrote, "[the album]...
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Foxlight, Iarla Ó Lionáird
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