For nigh on 20 years hailed as a master of innovation on uillean pipes and whistle, bringing a contemporary approach to traditional forms through a number of outfits - Tamalin, Coolfin, Lúnasa, The Olllam, Ulaid and (with Michael McGoldrick) At First Light - John McSherry has naturally taken a good five years to get round to following up his first solo album (the well-received, award-winning Soma). In its preparation he's gained considerable inspiration from the ancient sites and legends of Ireland, whose sacred geometry of landscape is outlined in the scholarly liner notes to the album. Of course, the music will still stand on its own feet, so to speak, outwith these influences and referential points, but there's also a sense of ambience and atmosphere on the project that just has to be extra-musical.
The album consists of ten tracks, each one a dedicated and structured medley of tunes which John has configured with the intention of conveying the essence of a specific location. Together they take us on a musical journey, replete with superbly imaginative arrangements that never lose sight of the ancient and the traditional. The haunting timbres of low whistle and/or uilleann pipes naturally form a central focus to the sound picture, but many of the surrounding soundscapes are surprising, or weird and wonderful to say the least. I can only guide you to some personal favourites among the delicacies on offer, to give you a flavour of John's inventiveness, where he pushes the envelope of expectation so gently but effectively across musical boundaries. After an introduction to the world of the faeries via the slip jigs of Dance Of The Síog, The Atlantean then takes a blues guitar riff as a launching point for a voyage across the ocean to a tribal dance on a foreign shore; the measured grandeur of Carrowmore evokes the mystic majesty of the megaliths; the air Sunset Land glistens with the mists of electric guitar and keening whistle; and The Stone Of The Seven Suns transports us to the site of a joyful celebratory dance.
A major achievement of The Seven Suns is John's ability to pull together varied strands and forms into a music that can be taken either programmatically or as abstract dance, and to inspire his fellow-musicians into sharing his vision through their own musicianship. Niamh Dunne (fiddle and viola), Seán Óg Graham (guitars, bouzouki, percussion) and Seán Warren (cello) are a hell of a team, and they prove responsive not only to John's direction but also to each other's contributions. Michael McGoldrick also makes a guest appearance on flute (duetting on John's mellow reel The Whisperer).
Even if you think, like I sometimes tend to do when faced with a new all-instrumental album to review, that there's nothing new under the proverbial sun of fusion, there are plenty of delights in store for you under The Seven Suns.
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