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Anois, Os Ard: March In Irish Underground Music By Eoin Murray
Eoin Murray , March 31st, 2020 06:38

In the fifth edition of our column on the sounds of Irish undergrowth, Eoin Murray finds curious sound collages, gnarled hip hop, machine-learned classical, billowing psych and more

Nun Attax/ Five Go Down To The Sea? photographs courtesy of Ciarán Ó Tuama

It’s 9 February 1981, and a young man’s voice is snarling across the national airwaves. He’s hiding from his landlord. He’s plotting a murder. He has a pain in his head. He wants to see his mother smile more than anything in the world.

The voice is that of Finbarr Donnelly, frontman of Cork punk outfit Nun Attax, who are performing the rabid ‘Looking For Words For My Book’ on RTÉ 2fm for The Fanning Sessions. A febrile and caustic live act, born from the Downtown Kampus gigs at Cork’s Arcadia Ballroom, the four-piece perform five cuts for the session. Listening to it now, almost 40 years later, it’s with a mixture of nausea and awe that we hear so much of young Ireland’s modern experience in Donnelly’s words - in his frustration and frantic determination.

Over Ricky Dineen's jagged guitars and Philip O’Connell’s dissonant bass, the live rendition of ‘The Woodcutter Song’ trips in desperation on its quest for love and Librium, while ‘Phantom Gobi’ is an itchy, paranoid hymn. ‘Edelweiss’, a cover from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music, has its fragile patriotism mutated into something sardonic and unstable. ‘Alyunt’ tumbles through shakey gibberish and rudimentary Gaeilge, before launching into its anthemic and uneasy chorus, propelled by Keith ‘Smelly’ O’Connell’s skittering drums.

Nun Attax formed in 1978, shortly after the young Dineen and Donnelly bonded over a shared interest in UFOs and music. Donnelly, who would spray paint ‘Punkx Rule’ across the walls of Cork city, introduced Dineen, a Status Quo and Pink Floyd fan, to the edgier sounds of John Peel’s show.

They played their first gig on Valentine's night 1979 in the Mayfield community hall and, by everyone’s account, it was a total mess, but the energy was there, and ready to erupt. The group’s taste for frenzy and experimentation grew, particularly during the brief tenure of second guitarist Giordai Ua Laoghaire, and they gradually earned local hero status, playing alongside other burgeoning punk acts such as U2 and Virgin Prunes.

Recorded works from the Nun Attax-era are rare enough, but three live tracks, ‘White Cortina’, ‘Reekus Sunfare’ and ‘Eyeballs’ feature on the first ever EP on Reekus Records, the label launched by Downtown Kampus’ Elvera Butler in 1981. Alongside cuts from Mean Features and Urban Blitz, the compilation EP Kaught At The Kampus presented a frontman in Donnelly unlike anything Ireland had heard before – one whose frenetic force and stark honesty wouldn’t be matched until the arrival of Girl Band’s Dara Kiely almost four decades down the line.

Shortly after the Fanning Session, in 1982, Nun Attax recruited a second guitarist, Mick Stack, and cellist Úna Ní Chanainn, and became Five Go Down To the Sea? Leaving Cork at the height of an economic recession in 1983, the band went to London. They went on to release three EPs over the following three years, on Kabuki Records, Abstract Sounds and Creation Records. Gradually, they gained a small following in the UK, but they were reaching the end of a creative tether. After the release of Singing In Braille on Creation Records, Stack left. Recalling his departure, Stack remembers turning up to a gig where others in the band were too drunk to perform. “We all just beat the shit out of each other rolling in the mud and dirt,” he said in a recent interview. “I was distraught afterwards because I knew it was over. That was the end. I went to America a day or two later.”

In 1988, following a hiatus, Donnelly and Dineen, still in London, formed Beethovan - or, Fuck Me Fuck My Beethoven, to Donnelly. With a new line-up, the band recorded the Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem EP in 1989 for Setanta Records, and their harrowing cover of The Beatles ‘Day Tripper’, became NME’s Single Of The Week.

On the cusp of widespread acclaim, the story of Nun Attax, Five Go Down To The Sea? and Beethovan ended when, on June 19th 1989, Donnelly, aged 27, drowned in the Serpentine pond at Hyde Park while swimming. Him Goolie Goolie Man, Dem, Beethovan's first and last EP, went on to be the debut release on London label Setanta Records, an imprint that would go on to champion numerous Irish ex-pat bands over the years.

In the years since, these bands have gained something of a mythical quality, archived in a comprehensive oral history by Paul McDermott and in numerous interviews with friends, associates and bandmates.

Now, thanks to the ever-admirable work of All City’s allchival imprint, the music of all three bands is being gathered into one exhaustive collection, titled Hiding From The Landlord. Comprising 24 remastered tracks, including the Fanning Session and assorted EPs, the compilation, set for release on 18 April, is a thrilling ode to one of the most vital characters to ever come out the Irish punk canon – a lyricist who captured a moment of frustration and despondence for Irish youth which, today, feels more prescient than ever.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, All City have also compiled a compilation, Music For Quarantine Vol​.​1, featuring tracks by 21 Irish electronic artists. All proceeds from the compilation will go toward ALONE, a Dublin-based organisation who provide support for older people living by themselves. Grab the compilation here

Below, you'll find some of the best releases to come out of the Irish undergrowth over the last few months, with an honourable mentions owed to Maija Sofia’s Bath Time and Aoife Nessa Frances Land Of No Junction.

From curious sound collages, gnarled hip hop and rattling techno to machine-learned classical and billowing psych explorations, there's plenty to sink your teeth into here before we return in May.

In the meantime, éistigí.

Queef Presence

Since 2013, Claire Guerin and Laney Mannion have used their hyper-minimalist field recordings and sound collages to encourage deep, attentive listening. Unlike so much contemporary musique concrète though, Queef’s latest offering, Presence, doesn’t end up as some po-faced sample salad, and instead sets itself apart with wry humour and a theatrical edge.

The pair make use of every day odds and ends across the seven-track collection: an accordion, a party horn, radio clips, a cat, birdsong, a lullaby mobile, their own voices. Spoken segments shift from muffled and poetic passages into babbling, almost intimate, snippets of two people just goofing around with the “vocal calamity of humanity”. Coupled with mesmerising clicks, scratches, hums and chimes that surround them, these moments present a lighter, but no less valuable, approach to deep listening.

V/A Lee Valley Delta Drones
(Department Of Energy)

In 1956, the Irish Electricity Supply Board (ESB) flooded parts of Cork’s Lee Valley to facilitate the building of two hydro-electric dams, which would provide electricity for the city. The flooded five kilometre region, The Gearagh, with its ancient oak stumps and just-visible submerged houses, forms the backdrop for the Department Of Energy’s debut release, Lee Valley Delta Drones. Comprising interviews, archival radio broadcasts, field recordings and sparse ambient electronics, the collection paints an abstract picture of a unique local history.

Dr Richard Scrivan’s interview with former resident, Gerry O’Riordan, is threaded throughout the mixtape. Choral ambient pieces from Lair and rusty electronic fragments from Local Gods merge with the organic and archival sounds, including reflections on the region’s erstwhile status as a haven for illegal poitín brewing. It makes for a curious collection, exploring a distinctly Irish relationship between nature and technology.

All Times Now Nothing - Tears Voyuer
(Where The Time Goes)

The debut album from All Times Now Nothing, an audio-visual project from Alfred Brooks and Cliona Ni Laoi, continues the duo’s hauntological exploration of “the ‘non-time’ of our time”. The Dublin and Berlin-based pair, who bonded over a shared affection for Mark Fisher’s work, craft commercial collages out of ads, YouTube videos and VHS tapes, and mutate them via injections of gurgling electronics, pacifying ambience and eerie strings. Tears Voyuer is a pair of 22-minute pieces divided into 14 segments, examining the simultaneously numbing and overwhelming nature of consumerism, and is itself both hypnotic and intense.

The music is often beautiful, and intoxicatingly subtle, but frequently the listener is ripped out of the haze with glitchy electronic spasms and queasy distortion. As ads for second hand cars, chips, insurance and yoghurt become increasingly warped, tantalising voices give way dizzy shouts, and we get a closer look at All Times Now Nothing’s commercial “hyperworld” – “which, once zoomed in on, becomes dissociative, overwhelming, and often unstable, as its reflection is held up to itself”.

It might sound nihilistic, but Tears Voyuer – not a spelling error by the way - never gives way to navel gazing. With its shades of Oneohtrix Point Never and Klein, the album is instead a captivating, even emotional, trip that reveals itself more and more with each listen.

Trá Pháidin - Set a hAon
(Sunshine Cult)

With shades of Popol Vuh, Can, Amon Duul II and Irish trad, Trá Pháidin’s debut release, ‘Set a hAon’ on Sunshine Cult Records, is a sprawling, swerving opus. From its swelling psychedelic intro to its proggy brass and drums meltdown, the 55-minute track wends toward the listener like an aggravated river, ripping familiar tropes from the Irish undergrowth to create a hybrid wide-angle image of its fertile state. You have Girl Band’s flegmy howls, Woven Skulls’ galloping guitars, Fixity’s feverish drums and The Jimmy Cake’s febrile sense of pace all coming in to play throughout. Meanwhile, producer Mark Waldron-Hyden provides windy drones for the piece’s quieter moments.

‘Set a hAon’ never feels pastiche though, and is a more than welcome addition on a label that is quickly establishing itself as one of Ireland’s leading lights for psychedelic sounds.

God Knows - Who’s Asking?
(Fly High Society)

Like his fellow Rusangano Family MC MuRli did in November 2019 with The Intangibles, Limerick’s God Knows thrives at centre-stage on his latest solo outing, Who’s Asking. “Solo outing” feels misleading, however, as the Zimbabwean-Irish powerhouse invites an all-star cast of producers and guest MCs into the party for what proves to be his most assertive work to date.

Released by Fly High Society, the label run by SertOne, who also produces the title track, Who’s Asking finds God Knows confronting familiar themes: diasporic Irish identity, the music that inspires him, popular culture, the evolution and assertion of Irish hip hop, and personal growth. MuRli and rising star Denise Chalia dress God Knows’ reflective storytelling in full-bodied refrains on ‘Kettle On’, while ‘VHS 3:16’ reminds us of his capacity for a feverishly fast-paced verse, coupled perfectly with Naive Ted’s typically grungy production.

After a string of features in 2019 for the likes of Dublin rapper Nealo, Cork’s Outsider Yp, and electronic producer Bantum, it’s a thrill to hear God Knows back in the driver’s seat. Having taken on the role of mentor for young artists in the south west in recent years, it’s even better to see him use that position to bring emerging acts together on ‘Who’s Asking' (South West Allstars Remix) – and in its electrifying video. Denise Chaila, Hazey Haze, Citrus Fresh, Gavin DaVinci and Strange Boy Nature contribute razor-sharp verses here, asserting their places in an Irish hip-hop scene that God Knows continues to stand proudly at the helm of.

Senior Infants Sorry Excuse Me Can I Get Through There

Members of Cork psych-punk outfit The Altered Hours have been having a lot of fun lately. Between vocalist Elaine Howley’s stirring electronic contributions to various compilations, and bassist Patrick Cullen’s heavyweight production work, it’s hard to be too mad at them for releasing only one track of their own in the past couple of years – especially when it was a cut as riotous as ’Colour Scheme’.

Guitarist and vocalist Cathal Mac Gabhann teamed up once again with Fixity bandleader Dan Walsh in January to release their third album as SENIOR INFANTS, Sorry Excuse Me Can I Get Through There, and it’s an absolute riot. Hearing two members of otherwise “serious” bands mess around with battered hardware to create cuts of glitchy vaporwave, psychedelic dub and lo-fi techno is a real treat. From the eerie chimes and sub-bass on ‘Dub Stomps’ to the whispered refrain and the actually-kind-of-beautiful melody on ‘everybodiestalkinbout’, there’s a delightful irreverence to this album, though it never gives in to silliness.

Gorrister - Full Almond
(Unbend Leg Out)

Specialising in grizzly noise, crumbly psych electronics and disjointed jazz, Dublin experimental label Unbend Leg Out raised its head only once in 2019, but they made it count. Gorrister, a duo comprising Tongue Bundle and The Barry People’s Warren Pollard and producer Pob, unleashed Full Almond on Boxing Day. Spanning six tracks and lasting roughly 20 minutes, it’s a raucous collection of distorted bass howls, noisy kicks, and jarring FX, samples and screams. It’s delightfully frenzied, and not at all for the faint of heart.

Claire O’Brien The Hollow | Static. & Odd Ned Moot Tapes Vol. 9

Kilkenny experimental imprint Moot Tapes kicks of 2020 with two new releases. Claire O’Brien’s The Hollow is enchantingly dark, and chilling in its intimacy. Propped up by tiptoeing pianos and subtle, taut electronics and percussion, O’Brien’s lyrics tell stories of vulnerability, and the uneasy sense of exposure that can come with letting one’s guard down. Her layered vocals, clear and candid, weigh up love (‘We Will Be One’) and the loss of it (‘Holes), while images of erosion and the elements in ‘Wet’ are stark, and speak to the disquiet at the heart of this bold debut.

Static & Odd Ned’s split tape, meanwhile, is outwardly focussed. The first three tracks find John Hennesy’s Static looking to dark dancefloors at either end of peak-time. ‘Back To The Start’ and ‘Echo Chamber’ are Batu-esque barnstormers with their distant breaks, silky sub-bass and heads-down rhythms. Meanwhile, ‘Departing’ is a fluttering cut of sci-fi d&b. Odd Ned lands the ship on some distant planet with four squidgy, futuristic dubstep tracks – Like breathing in sea air while still wedged into the couch.

Various Artists - HOW BAZAAR
&
Clerk 5 - Popstarr
(Unscene)

Limerick’s “not really a record label” label The Unscene finished off 2020 with two gnarled broadcasts of beautifully demented sounds. Starting with the HOW BAZAAR compilation, released to raise funds for The Unscene’s free bi-monthly showcases, 19 label-affiliates contributed rumbling noise, grizzly hip hop, rabid punk and lo-fi psychedelia to further solidify Limerick as the foremost breeding ground for off-kilter sounds in 2020’s Ireland. But with debuts from the likes of Olivia Furey, cuts from non-Limerick acts (Elaine Howley, Acid Granny) and moments of tender oddness (Steve Ryan, Rokaia), the compilation never loses sight of its welcoming atmosphere in the clatter. After all, “being an oddball is for everyone”.

Clerk 5’s Popstarr solidifies that. Produced by mankyy, the young rapper’s debut LP bursts with mangled beats, gritty interludes and spiky, unabashedly accented vocal features, all underpinning Clerk’s own smoky delivery and sardonic humour. Another gem in Limerick’s rusty hip hop crown.

JaBro’s Sterilized Emotions megamix is the mouldy cherry on top of The Unscene’s year, released on 23 December. Redlining melodies and broken beats erupt from the speakers on this one, using every drop of fuel left in the lable’s 2019 tank, clearing the way for whatever clamour comes in 2020.

Son Zept A
(Resist)

Son Zept is less interested in deconstructing electronic music than he is in reassembling its fragments and asking, “What’s me?” On A, the Belfast producer and live act – real name Liam McCartan – makes use of familiar contemporary club sounds: fast-paced breaks, syncopated kicks, jagged melodic hooks – but mutates them in a way that feels inwardly assertive, and refreshingly unphased by industry-standard pressures to make an album “about something”.

A is an electrifying hodgepodge of billowing techno, skittering Drukqs-isms and distorted ambience. Over its seven tracks, we’re simply hearing someone celebrate what they love about electronic music. With technical proficiency and a taste for frenzy on his side, it just so happens that the resulting work is 1000% lethal. ‘Axis Praxis’, with its haywire beat and maximal synth lead, feels tailor-made to be played out by Aphex Twin, while ‘Again’, ‘Arrival’ and ‘Level’ are cut from the same cloth as Lee Gamble and Special Request at their most unhinged.

‘1d2d Rise’ and ‘Radio Silence’ present a more delicate side to A , with the former’s layered organ lead and fizzing ambience, and the latter’s tin-whistle melody and FM radio sample, giving the album a necessary poise. It ends with ‘Some Things Can’t Last A Long Time’, an ode to the late Daniel Johnston, played on Mc Carten’s grandmother’s old accordion. Recorded, like much of the album, during a late night session in his bedroom, it’s a fitting end to Son Zept’s most forthright release to date.

Jennifer Walshe - A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance
(Migro)

In her follow up to 2019’s awe-inspiring ALL THE MANY PEOPLS, Jennifer Walshe trades verbal acrobatics for something even more abstract. Continuing her adventures in AI, Walshe makes use of sounds sent to her by machine learning specialists CJ Carr and Zack Zukowski, who trained their neural network using recordings of her voice. Finding curious parallels between the network’s course of learning and the history of Western music course she used to teach at university level, Walshe fuses the two, and creates a fabulously strange alternate anthology.

“I map the development of the network's understanding of my voice onto the history of early Western music,” Walshe writes. “Machine learning is used as a filter to listen to the history of early Western music; Western music history is used as a filter to listen to machine learning. In combination, they produce a new alternative tradition, a proposal for a different way of thinking about, listening to, and making, a history of Western music."

The pieces are brief, and they gurgle, scratch and pop in ways that are both eerie and beautiful. ‘Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli, Agnus Dei I' is an extra-terrestrial choral dream, while ‘Arcadelt Il bianco e dolce cigno’ is a wriggly, wobbly trip with an almost industrial flourish. Here and there the listener will be jolted to remember that the vocal sounds are made by a learning machine, and it’s hard not to smile at the oddness and innovation of it all.

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