There are reasons why folk supergroups are few and far between, chief among them the fact that it’s a genre that doesn’t easily lend itself to the type of hype more commonly associated with boisterous rock ‘n’ rollers. Admittedly, the marquee names that make up the Monsters Of Folk spring to mind, but their monicker is tongue-in-cheek and their collaborations brief. Besides, they dabble in the lighter arts of folk; a fusion of pop-like hooks, hummable melodies and snazzy cardigans.
The Gloaming are another kettle of fish entirely. They arrive on the crest of a gentle wave of anticipation – not a crashing wave of furiously-fuelled expectation – and the “trad” in their trad-folk sound is as prominent as it is authentic. Yet their status as a supergroup is inescapable: fiddler Martin Hayes is an established name (and, indeed, authority) in traditional music; hardanger player Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh has seven LPs to his name; Chicagoan guitarist Dennis Cahill is a critically-acclaimed producer; Iarla Ó Lionáird sings in Afro Celt Sound System and has collaborated with the likes of Peter Gabriel; pianist Thomas Bartlett is perhaps better known as Doveman.
Their supergroup status comes with a footnote: this quintet is not drawn together by the pursuit of further fame and fortune but rather by long-standing friendships, utter mastery over their respective instruments and a shared desire to explore the lesser-known themes of their Irish musical heritage. No curtain calls. No grandstanding. No showboating. Simply a fellowship of musicians delving into – and thereby reviving – a long-overlooked past.
It is one of these aspects of heritage, in fact, that gives this self-titled debut an inimitable uniqueness: sean-nós singing. Traditionally unaccompanied, this Irish-language style is otherworldly to Anglophone ears, seeming to imply mood and meaning with tone and melody as much as lyrical content. When one considers the historic origins of sean-nós – conjured to accompany toil, express love and lament loss – The Gloaming’s sound takes on further life, bringing to the mind’s-eye daily scenes of lives long-since lived. It’s extraordinarily evocative; all the more so, perhaps, because of Ó Lionáird’s relatively simple, unadorned style.
The album sets forth with the sparse keys of Song 44, its bare soundscape gradually welcoming vocals and strings. As is the case for the subsequent 10 tracks, major chords are a rarity – and all the more striking for it. Allistrum’s March remains resolutely instrumental, its unencumbered canvas allowing Ó Raghallaigh’s hardanger fiddle – Norway’s national instrument – the space it needs to breathe. For the uninitiated, the hardanger sounds like a fiddle with a mysterious past; imagine the Rohan theme from Howard Shore‘s Lord Of The Rings scores and you’re halfway there.
Contemplation is the key here, but twilit passages (or gloaming passages, if you will) are alleviated by the occasional full-blooded stomp. Most notably, seventeen-minute spectacular Opening Set gradually blossoms into an irresistibly bawdy jig, and despite its lack of percussion – and its damp-eyed title – The Girl Who Broke My Heart’s cascading, harmonious strings seem to spurn the chance to mourn and instead take cheerful aim at the smiling, rueful, better-to-have-loved-and-lost side of breakups.
The Gloaming make no attempt to modernise or reinvent their chosen style. They’re not thrusting their hands into a relatively untapped resource of sounds, ideas and other perfectly preserved elements in order to reconstitute them for a quick fix. This is a revival, not a revision; a good-faith revival that keeps its substance intact and brings it wholesale into the present. This is the sound of five supremely talented musicians whose guiding principle is to leave unbroken things unfixed. To say it works well is an understatement.