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Lorcan MacMathuna Lorcan MacMathuna
Album: Visionaries 1916
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 11

Cork-born Lorcán is a remarkable young sean-nós singer – but also a truly enterprising arranger of Irish traditional music. He sings with a confident and commanding, though sensibly measured, style which emphasises the musical quality of the songs while still demonstrating both a respect for and understanding of the texts. Perhaps unusually for a singer, Lorcán admits that he has often fallen for the music of a song and the sound of its phrases before he understood anything else about it.

Those observations were central to my critical appreciation of Lorcán’s intense, somewhat otherworldly (but entirely captivating) 2007 album Rógaire Dubh, since which time he’s expanded his exploratory approach to song performance through the adoption of further ingenious and experimental musical forms and instrumental backdrops. On his 2014 record Preab Meadar, Lorcán enlisted fiddler Daire Bracken (of Danú) for an intriguing, scintillating collaboration that redefined the terms for combining fiddle and voice in Irish music, largely through vocal dance (bringing oral dance meters with their complex layered rhythms to medieval Irish poetry). Must be heard to be believed… Subsequently, on The Arrows That Murder Sleep (2015), a sequence of original songs composed in reaction to lyrics from ancient manuscripts of Celtic literature and mythology, Lorcán augmented his voice and Daire’s fiddle with the ostensibly disparate talents of three empathic fellow-musicians well-versed in free-improvisation – Martin Tourish (accordion), Eoghan Neff (fiddle) and Seán Mac Erlaine (reeds/woodwind). This collection was arguably more of an acquired taste, not least due its being predominantly more deliberately-paced, but it nevertheless possessed a bold, stentorian character and tremendous, almost hymnal atmosphere, where the sheer involvement of the musical input proved so crucial to the responsiveness of the textual invocation. Time was often felt to stand still, not least through the frequent deployment of sombre drones and soft, mellow textures to mirror and comment on Lorcán’s stoic, gently epic, immutable yet fluid sean-nós vocal disposition.

Taking us up to the present, then, Lorcán’s latest project, Visionaries 1916, is a touring show comprising music, song, archive pictures and spoken word, funded by the Arts Council as part of its programme commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising; its contents are mostly fashioned out of the words of James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, three of the leaders of the Rising. Here, Lorcán’s settings powerfully convey the men’s vision and dedication to ideas of cultural renewal and the determination of a New Ireland, in music of grandeur, grit and determination. The majestic, mournful soaring setting of Plunkett’s astounding, visionary The Cloud stands out for its stately Williamson-esque beauty, and the lavish, sonorous opulence of its scoring is a wonder to behold, as are the more limpid textures and niftier tempos of We Only Want The Earth and the unexpectedly animated paean to Daybreak (the latter featuring some puckish sax playing from Eamonn Galldubh). The thrilling poetic symbolism of Plunkett’s White Dove Of The Wild Dark Eyes ebbs and flows across a deftly textured landscape, while the same author’s Lux In Tenebris receives a singularly stirring rendition. The epic pretensions of Pearse’s three items are also tellingly realised (although, unusually. translations are not supplied for the Gaelic texts in the otherwise well-endowed booklet), and the disc closes with a spine-tingling a cappella account of Lament For Thomas McDonagh by Francis Ledwidge, who had tragically joined the ranks of the fallen in Passchendaele in July 1917. Lorcán’s own distinctive voice is joined on two songs by fellow-singer Íde Nic MacMathúna, who also turns in a powerful solo performance of the lament Bean Sléibhe Ag Caoineadh A Mic. And at the centre of the disc we find a spirited medley of three hearthside tunes by Eamonn Ceannt (co-founder of The Pipers’ Club), which features some glorious ensemble playing involving Eamonn Galldubh with Lorcán’s now-long-term collaborators Martin Tourish and Daire Bracken. Visionaries is a most stimulating disc. Although its contents may not be easily classifiable, it’s still a pretty extraordinary, and quite literally visionary, experience. Lorcán’s music undoubtedly belongs firmly in the “must investigate” category…

David Kidman