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Áine O'Dwyer
Gallarais Joseph Burnett , August 31st, 2017 10:25

Ghosts haunt this extraordinary album, blurring the line between this life and whatever comes next.

Folk is the music of ghosts, of a world beyond the veil. Yes, it can deal with more earthly matters, such as relationships or politics (some would argue that the latter is the only folk that matters), but even in those cases folk serves to project a world dreamt, imagined or desired rather than something real. And more than any other genre I can think of, it is a vehicle for delving into the past to explore phantoms both collective and entirely personal.

I’m not sure where the ghosts on Gallarais, the latest album by Irish multi-instrumentalist and singer Áine O’Dwyer, have come from but they are a heady presence throughout. David Toop’s liner notes are oblique and mysterious, which is fitting for such an oblique and mysterious album. O’Dwyer’s previous release for MIE Music was a reissue of her Music For Church Cleaners tape, a live recording of her improvising on church organ, occasionally interrupted by the eponymous cleaners asking her to play something less experimental. Like that album, Gallarais has clearly been recorded in a large, echoing space, apparently a seaside cave given the track title ‘Grottovox’ on which the sound of water lapping against rocks can be heard. Things are less clear elsewhere on the album, but it’s a space that imbues the music with a reverent yet spectral quality, O’Dwyer’s harp, percussion, recorders and vocals disappearing skywards, swallowed by their surroundings even as they reverberate their way into the listener’s consciousness. Wherever Gallarais was recorded, the results evoke a darkly lit cavernous space in which music thins the borderline between this life and whatever comes next.

O’Dwyer’s use of vocals contributes to this sense of mystery and even foreboding. The wordless plainsong on ‘Grottovox’ is low in the mix, as if her voice was captured from the cave’s belly by a microphone placed at the mouth. The sea becomes an active musical component, swirling around O’Dwyer like a seductive nymph, coating her wordless chant in layers of salt and spray. The odd eruption of percussion lends the piece a tantric, spiritual aura, picking up where the previous two tracks, the harp-driven ballad ‘Underlight’ and the brief ‘Corpophone’ had already laid the enigmatic groundwork. Echoes of O’Dwyer’s Celtic heritage can be heard in the piercing recorder piece ‘Mouthtoum’, while ‘The Dirge’ pitches the ambience further into the shadows as the singer’s voice -again singing words whose meaning never resolves into focus - is buffeted by and almost buried under waves of cymbal drones and shimmering singing bowl tones. Like funeral bells, these chiming, inescapable tones seem to herald the passage through the curtain of reality.

By the time Áine O’Dwyer takes us into the final third of Gallarais with ‘Beansidhe’, the shadows have almost tightened completely around her (and the listener). With more strident metallic tones setting the ambience, the piece inches forwards at a doom-laden pace, the expressionistic use of cymbals and bowls adding to the eeriness of O’Dwyer’s far-off ululations. The album closes with the sepulchral ‘Hounds of Hades’, the reference to hell all too clear. Massed voices surge out of the earth (are they all O’Dwyer’s?) intoning balefully like possessed monks. It’s hard to imagine a more chilling, resonant finale to such a singular album. This is folk music at its most primordial, the emotions raw, visceral and at the same time elusive. Are we hearing Áine O’Dwyer’s voice on Gallarais, or is it the voice of her ancestors, refracted through her imagination? Or our ancestors? Or spirits altogether less friendly? O’Dwyer refuses specificity and lets the ghosts run free on the wings of her eerie voice. Gallarais is a quiet album, but a deeply unsettling one.

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