This year has been the strongest in recent memory for Irish music, managing so despite the dissolutions of a great many leading outfits in the community in times of yore, among them this year Fight Like Apes, Enemies and Funeral Suits.
In the eight months your writer has been doing daily explainers on Irish independent music, there’s never been a morning where we’ve been without content, a story to tell, something that’s exciting to put in post and press ‘publish’ on.
What a lot of us figured would be a passing golden era a few years back has become the foundation for something far more sustained – without so much as a look from daytime radio or television, and with minimal coverage from our country’s mainstream media (all this despite good people in each, fighting the good fight, might I add).
Ireland’s music scene is easily the equal of any other offering, anywhere in the world, and arguably, pound-for-pound, the best in terms of quality of releases.
With that being said, let’s dig in to the list.
The divisively-named Top Ten Irish Records of 2016 does come with a caveat, though – joint winners (both ranked #1, with the #2 spot vacated, for the pedants among you).
01. Malojian is the brainchild of Belfast man Stevie Scullion, aided on occasion by collaborators Mike Mormecha and Joe McGurgan.
02. New album This Is Nowhere finds Scullion ruminating on middle-life, from parenthood, to marriage to grief, and was overseen by none other than Steve Albini, he of Big Black/Shellac, and the DIY recording gatekeeper behind some of Nirvana, the Breeders, and the Pixies’ finest work.
03. Streaming above is the video for I’ll Be Alright, taken from the record. Video directed by Colm Laverty.
04. Catch him on the road at Whelan’s in Dublin on the 26th, DeBarra’s in Clonakilty on the 27th, Coughlan’s in Cork on the 4th of December, and on the 9th at the Washerwoman in Ballina. Full tour details and more dates here.
Verdict: Scullion’s dichotomy of wringing sunny tunes from sober situations has seemingly met its match in Albini’s barebones recording work.
01. Indie/alt/folk duo We Cut Corners have been busy this year, putting the finishing touches on third album The Cadences of Others.
02. Hefty shoes to fill: previous long-players Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards and Think Nothing were both Choice Prize nominees.
03. Streaming above is the video for Of Whatever, directed by Jon Hozier-Byrne. Evoking the sense of panic that 2016 has neatly been enveloped by, it features model Megan O’Malley sleeping through life/drowning in a shallow bed. Fun for the whole family.
04. Catch them tomorrow night in the Roisín Dubh in Galway, and on Saturday night in the Button Factory in Dubland.
Verdict: A lush, densely-arranged take on the band at their more usually considered bodes for a big-sounding LP.
01. Folk-laden alternative drawn from personal experience is the order of the day for Dublin singer-songwriter Ailbhe Reddy.
02. Getting a start in 2014, she first drew attention from a wider audience after her tune Cover Me appeared across radio, while first single Flesh and Blood garnered good reviews and song-of-the-day features across the UK and Irish blogosphere.
03. Debut E.P. Hollowed Out Sea released this year, with production from Sacred Animals‘ Darragh Nolan. Streaming above is the video single Distrust.
04. Reddy is among the artists in the running for the fan vote to co-headline Other Voices and appear on the RTÉ TV show of the same name, alongside Jafaris, Meltybrains?, BARQ and Basciville. Vote here.
Verdict: Reddy clearly has the knack for big songwriting, but it’s tempered with a certain elegance that makes it all the more intriguing.
01. The return of Waterford singer/composer Katie Sullivan, a.k.a. Katie Kim, has been two years in the making, and comes four years after previous full-length Cover and Flood.
02. Debuting in 2008 with full-length Twelve, recorded after a virus wiped fifty existing finished songs from Sullivan’s PC, she quickly made a name for sparse, lo-fi alt-tinged folk in PJ Harvey vein. 2012’s Cover and Flood continued to flesh out her vision.
03. Streaming above is Sullivan’s newly-released long-player SALT. Available now on vinyl from independent record retailers around the country, and digitally via Bandcamp and Spotify.
04. Having launched the record at The Unitarian in Dublin a few days ago, upcoming launch dates remain on October 31st at The Loft in Reyjavik (for our Iceland-based readers), and December 3rd at St. Patrick’s Gateway in Waterford.
Verdict: The realisation of the sound and vision that’s undoubtedly been brewing in Sullivan’s work over all this time. A haunting, reverb-laden missive.
The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock – Folk group reprise and release large-scale pieces
What you may need to know…
01. Marrying noises from the Irish folk canon with experimental rock sounds, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock take their name from a poem about a haunted canal lock.
02. They’ve released two full-lengths to date: an eponymous self-titled album in 2008, and The Brutal Here and Now, in 2012, via Japanese label Transduction Records.
03. Streaming above is the video for the first movement of recently-toured set Lockout. A large-scale piece, requiring a guitar orchestra, and based on the 1913 strike and lockout, Lockout will be reprised with a performance at the Cork Opera House on October 30th, as part of the Green Room stage.
04. Follow-up piece The Bullet in the Brick, marking the hundredth anniversary of the Rising as it draws to a close, is released on 12″ on November 25th. Preorders available now. They’ll also be performing at the No Idle Day weekender in Dublin next week.
VERDICT: Expanding their sonics to accomodate the weight and expectation of their subject matter and its retelling, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have risen to the challenge of history in fine fashion.
Dr. Strangely Strange – the return of legendary folk freaks
What you may need to know…
01. Started in 1967, folk experimentalists Dr. Strangely Strange were among the tenants of legendary Dublin rock lodgings The Orphanage, the same circle of people that produced Phil Lynott and Gary Moore among others.
02. Signing with Joe Boyd, producer/manager for the Incredible String Band, the band released debut LP Kip of the Serenes via Island Records in 1969, and the following year, recruited Moore for follow-up record Heavy Petting. The band disbanded in 1971 after a European tour, and have since reunited on a number of occasions inbetween other work in the arts, including for third LP Alternative Medicine in 1997.
03. Streaming above is one of the band’s calling cards, Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal, from the band’s first full-length.
04. The band plays its first gig in Cork city in over four decades this Sunday at the Kino, as part of IndieCork festival. Tickets €12, including a screening of a short documentary on the band filmed in 2007 before the performance.
VERDICT: One of the bands that helped set the scene for all manner of alternative music and experimentation in this country.
From top: Ken Griffin (left), with bandmate John Rauchenberger); Mike McGrath Bryan
Ken Griffin, guitarist, singer and songwriter, has had somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, with new project August Wells recording and touring regularly.
He had a long shadow to escape, as one of the members of Dublin dream-poppers Rollerskate Skinny, subsequently decamping to New York to form bands like Kid Silver.
With new album Madness is the Mercy out now via FIFA Records, and ahead of the usual host of touring engagements this autumn/winter, Ken has a chat with Mike McGrath-Bryan, who mans the ‘sheet music desk.
Mike McGrath-Bryan: “So, the new album is out now. Give us some insight into writing/assembling the songs, and the recording/other processes of the record.”
Ken Griffin: “I usually have about 30 or 40 songs at different stages of completion at any given time. John and I will work a few days a week on the ones I feel are closest. Then I take them home, complete the lyrics and structures, and write some simple brass and string lines. Half this album was recorded live in a studio called Strange Weather in Brooklyn. The other half was recorded in our own home studio. The live songs were recorded with an eight-piece band, more often than not using the first take.”
Mike: “You’ve worked very closely with Cork-based label FIFA (Frank and Walters, Fight Like Apes, Whipping Boy) since the project’s emergence, how have Eddie (Kiely, label boss) and crew have been to work with?”
Ken: “They have been fantastic. When you work with people like Eddie, who has a great love of our music, it makes you want to work harder in turn for them. It’s been maybe the best experience I have had with someone in the music business in my 25 years of recording.”
Mike: “Your emergence is of particular interest to Irish music followers considering your past endeavours – Rollerskate Skinny, and more. How has the reaction been from longtime fans, gig-goers, press, etc.?”
Ken: “I have been surprised at how many of the people who liked Rollerskate Skinny love August Wells. But it seems like August Wells is stepping out of that shadow, and developing its own audience. In fact I remember at a gig in Cork, a guy had come to see August Wells and really liked it, then I met him at another of our gigs and he said, “Hey, I listened to your old band Rollerskate Skinny, god, I thought it was awful” (laughs). So I suppose if you like August Wells and have not heard Rollerskate Skinny, it might not be to your liking. I don’t know, i am an artist who moves forward, its not for me to judge.”
Mike: “What are your recollections of the time, and what say you to how Rollerskate Skinny is remembered, the all-time Irish lists, reissues, etc.?”
Ken: “It’s nice that people still talk about an album I made 20 years ago. I have no nostalgia about the nineties. As an artist, by the time something comes out, you have usually moved on to the next thing, and the next thing is often somewhat of a reaction to the last thing I have done. It’s always about the excitement of the latest ideas, they are the ones going around and around in my head, being altered and considered and worked on. I am very grateful and moved when anybody anywhere likes my work.”
Mike: “You are now based in New York, where Kid Silver and later August Wells were started. How did the initial change of scenery from Ireland and the UK, to New York change your mindset and creative process to begin with, and does it have an effect now?”
Ken: “It’s hard to quantify, I have lived half my life in New York, and I have now made five albums here. I write as directly from my life as I can, so I suppose my environment then effects the work greatly. When I got here first, I got stolen by the New York night. In a way it was so stimulating, I needed to disappear for a while. Actually maybe I didn’t need to, i just did. I think Rollerskate Skinny’s songs were more fantastical, and the type of writing i wanted to do required more living, more experience, and on a deep level I knew that.”
Mike: “How did yourself and John (Rauchenberger, August Wells collaborator) meet, and how did the project come together?”
Ken: “Through mutual friends. I heard him playing piano, I was intrigued by his unconventional style. We began playing together, and our sound developed very quickly, and there was something unforced and believable about it that satisfied me.”
Mike: Returning to the Irish scene on the regular with the beginning of the August Wells project, how do you think things have changed in the past few decades, what’s stayed the same, and which artists do you like at present?
Ken: There’s so many more venues and festivals to play. You can spend three weeks touring Ireland now. It’s so different for me now, back then, everyone was just chasing after a record deal, and some idea of success. For me now it’s very simple, I really love to play live, I love writing songs, the recording process is and always will be a baffling chore. Nowadays you can do things on a smaller level, far easier than ever before. You can record and release albums without involving a whole army of people. Ireland seems a lot more comfortable with itself, and its been a joy to experience.
Mike: What’s up next for the band now that the record is out?
Ken: “We are planning to tour Italy, Germany and Denmark in October. We are doing a lot of shows around New York, playing a few with Declan O’Rourke, he’s my cousin. Hopefully a couple more tours of Ireland in the next six months. We already have a group of new songs for our next record. We try not to stop, we try to be living, daily working artists.”
August Wells’ new LP, Madness is the Mercy, is available now through the usual digital platforms, with Irish launch shows in the pipeline.