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Anois, Os Ard: Irish Underground Music For July Reviewed By Eoin Murray
Eoin Murray , July 14th, 2020 09:14

In the sixth edition of our column on the sounds emanating from the Irish undergrowth, Eoin Murray finds blazing hip hop, abstract electronics, futuristic R&B and much more

MuRli portrait by Leon Burghagen

MuRli rarely sings, but on the title track of his new EP, Till The Wheels Fall Off, the Limerick MC’s voice beams as he declares: “You can’t hide forever, ain’t nobody safe here unless we all are."

With a radiant hip hop beat and backing vocals from Denise Chaila, the track was written in response to an incident in February this year when Moussa Marega, a footballer in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, walked off the pitch after facing torrents of racist abuse. Released on 5 June, the track landed as Black Lives Matter protests took place around the world in reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, its blazing production illuminating its stark subject matter.

A rallying call to stand up and speak out against racism, MuRli’s lyrics confront the bane of discrimination he’s faced in Ireland since arriving from Togo at the age of 12, as he vows to no longer “just roll with the punches so I survive”.

“The time has come for me to be actively engaging people when it comes to these things,” he says over a call. “I've got brothers and sisters, and if I'm to be an example to them then I can't be pretending that these things aren't real. The sooner I get up and do something and play my part in it, the better things will get for them hopefully. Or the generation to come. Especially in Ireland.”

‘Till The Wheels Fall Off’ is by no means the first time the rapper and producer has tackled such topics in his music. On tracks like the incendiary ‘Both Sides’ and ‘Only The Oppressor Knows Peace’, and as a member of award winning trio Rusangano Family with MC God Knows and producer mynameisjOhn, his high-energy, almost acrobatic, verses have frequently dealt with identity, immigration and discrimination. Now however, he wants to have these conversations outside of music, moving anyone who would say racism in Ireland isn’t a very real issue to think again.

“We live in a society where we don't think things are that bad compared to other places,” he says. “But the reality is things don't need to get that bad. The potential of things eventually getting that bad is what we're seeing in the US. That's the nastiest side of it. But it's real, and we can all do something to tackle it, or at least make sure that people are having conversations. Some of these conversations are heartbreaking and awkward or tough, but the reality is it's tougher being in it.”

“For a long time I thought talking about these things is too divisive,” he continues. “But my stance has changed on that. If I'm not talking about it but I have these songs then it's almost like I'm choosing not to address it in real life. It's almost like hiding behind your own tracks. You can't afford to remove yourself from it. These things affect me every single day. There's a whole generation of young black people in Ireland, and I'd hate for them to go through the same things we're talking about now. So what you're hoping is for everyone to actively start doing something about it. It's going to change.”

Till The Wheels Fall Off started coming together in December 2019, when MuRli was invited to contribute a track to a compilation on New York label P.S. 4080 under the theme of “apocalypse”. From the three tracks he produced for the label to choose from, they went for ‘Now In Den’, while he was left with a template for a solo release that found him fascinated with things falling apart, even before they did. Across its seven tracks, we find MuRli navigating mental strain and adversity with determination, his typically animated flow leaping on top of frenetic productions that are entirely his own, pulling excitedly from footwork, grime, afrobeat and hip hop. On ‘NO EXIT’, he snarls a defiant chorus – “Only way out is to face it. No exit! New order, new decade” – staring down the barrel of the most globally catastrophic year in living memory with dogged tenacity.

“Even in these times we're in I'm always hopeful that things will get better,” MuRli says. “Sometimes maybe I'm too optimistic, but for the things I'm in control of I can never envisage things going worse. That's the part I have to play in it. I'm in control of how I react to these situations.”

It’s this quality that has seen MuRli become a trailblazing voice in the ever-expanding world of Irish rap, with its varied collectives and artists from the punky PX Crew in Limerick, the thriving drill scene, Dublin’s FaR collective and beyond. Till The Wheels Fall Off is, first and foremost, an ode to hip hop, the music that taught him to speak with his own voice. But on the stampeding ‘ILLEGIBLE’ and the boom bap inspired ‘the CULTURE’ and ‘LEARN TO GROW’ we hear an artist finding himself, carving an invigorated sound that is entirely his, inspiring others to do so in the process.

On last year’s Intangibles mixtape, he was curatorial, gathering just some of his favourite artists – including Outsider YP, God Knows, Farah Elle and Denise Chaila, who we’ll talk about later – to produce a collection that signalled him as a champion of emerging talent, and a leader in a scene he wants everyone to thrive in. “Leaders should make others leaders,” he says when asked if it’s a role he’s comfortable with. ”If it's in that sense then yes, [even if] the role I play in that is being a person in the background encouraging the younger crowd. Growing up, I didn't have anybody in a mentor kind of way to look up to in Ireland. So everything I made at the time sounded foreign, too American.”

“I'm really driven for the day that we have our own sound in Ireland,” he concludes. “Where you listen to it and without even hearing one lyric you know where it’s coming from. Rap in Ireland has to be up there with anywhere, any culture in the world. I'm determined.”

Figures in Irish rap and the wider music scene have been some of the most crucial in raising awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and its importance in Ireland. R&B artist Erica Cody has been a key spokesperson for anti-racism and the importance of protest, while Dublin rapper JyellowL performed a heartstopping spoken piece for a short film, Stand, which featured shots from the Dublin BLM protest at which he spoke. In April, Bobby Zithelo, the filmmaker behind Stand, also released a short but vital documentary, This Land, examining Ireland's relationship with race, identity, immigration and the very notion of “Irishness” through a series of interviews.

In this time of isolation and uncertainty, the sense of community felt throughout the Irish undergrowth only seems to have strengthened, with artists throughout the country coming together for live streamed charity events like the experimental Box Moon and The Mary Wallopers’ Stay At Home series. Elsewhere, the voice of Lankum’s Ian Lynch in his Songs From The Craic Pipe video series has proven as comforting as it is timely as he sings old Irish songs on subjects including isolation, equality, and tearing down statues, all from dilapidated old industry hubs in Dublin.

Proceeds from a lot of the music below have been going toward MASI – the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, an independent advocacy group for those seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland, with the goal of ending the inhumane system of Direct Provision and deportation. Direct Provision, sometimes described as Ireland’s de facto answer to segregation, has been the country’s system for accommodating asylum seekers since 1999. It has been heavily criticised by human rights watchdogs for its denial of dignity, privacy, humanity and even basic amenities to those living under it, many of whom wait years to be processed for citizenship. You can learn more about it here.

Below you’ll find the best releases from the Irish undergrowth from April to the end of June. From blazing hip hop, hefty psych rock and rib-rattling EBM to futuristic R&B and shadowy drones, there's plenty to sink your teeth into here before we return in early autumn.

In the meantime, éistigí.

Denise Chaila - ‘Down’ & ‘C H A I L A’

“A lot of everything that I’m doing and saying completely flies in the face of ‘traditional Irishness’,” Denise Chaila told Gal-Dem in February. Since bursting through with her debut single, ‘Duel Citizenship’, in 2019, the Zambian-Irish rapper and spoken-word artist has become one of the country’s most vital voices on the subjects of identity, race and self-confidence. Shaking the creaky old structures used to define what sort of music “sounds Irish”, the Limerick MC has set the scene alight with her electrifying flow, further heralding a new golden era of Irish storytelling and cultural evolution.

On 1 May, Chaila dropped ‘Down’, a bass-heavy cut produced by MuRli that sees her shunning rigid categorisation, kicking naysayers away and, not for the first time, throwing in some familiar Gaeilge for good measure - “Leigh anois go curamach/ Can’t define who I am with a Trócaire box”.

It set the stage for her second single of the month, ‘C H A I L A’, which we first heard as part of her live-streamed performance at The National Gallery Of Ireland for Other Voices’ #Courage series. Accompanied by God Knows, she gives a spelling and elocution lesson for her own name over a bubbling MuRli beat. Running through the various mispronunciations she’s encountered through the years, the performance sees Chaila – “Like ‘chai tea’. But with a ‘la’ at the end” – ensuring that her name will be on everyone’s lips for a long time to come. As Ensemble Records co-founder and live music programmer Rob Farhat perfectly put it in an excellent piece examining structural racism in Irish arts, seeing “two incredible Black artists taking ownership of a space that is steeped in white European art and rapping about what it means to be Black and Irish... was a true breakthrough moment... for the representation of all ethnic minorities in the arts in Ireland more generally.”

UD - Fruitless Grapevine

Lucan’s UD is a member of emerging Dublin hip hop collective FaR and, on his debut EP, we’re introduced to a lyricist whose talent and assurance mark him as one of the country’s most exciting young voices. Balancing assertion with introspection, and rising above self-doubt with a deft flow and a touch of bravado, UD dishes out colourful wordplay with razor sharp precision on top of beats that comfortably fuse hip hop, R&B and Afrobeats.

Through navigations of mental strain (‘Laundry’, ‘Felt.’) and Ireland’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in the Direct Provision system (‘432Hz’), Fruitless Grapevine is poised. Even when the mood shifts into more upbeat, alté-inspired, territory on ‘Cool Kids’ and ‘Odimma’, with production from Dublin’s Ayo Tori, the EP’s hazy atmosphere sets a perfect pace for UD to reflect on the world around him and his place within it – as an artist, a friend, a partner, and as a young black man in contemporary Ireland.

Fruitless Grapevine ends on a triumphant note, with UD emphasising the confidence he has found in his writing, and among his peers in the FaR collective. Determined to “carry the torch”, he joins the growing ranks of performers pushing modern Ireland’s young and diverse experience into the foreground of its artistry.

Declan Synnot - Old Lavender

In a verse that lays bare the callous, limbo-like reality of life under Direct Provision, UD’s ‘432Hz’ describes “shades of grey showing in orange, white, and the green”. On Old Lavender, sound artist Declan Synnot paints the system with a similarly drained palette. Over five experimental yet considered pieces, cold and pale hues drift in and out of perspective with the help of abstract electronic swells and dissonant hums.

Released in response to the dehumanising nature of Direct Provision, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, all proceeds raised through sales of Old Lavender have gone to MASI - Movement Of Asylum Seekers In Ireland. While not strictly intended as a sonic representation of Direct Provision – far be it from Synnot or I to do that with any authority – there are some parallels to be drawn between the album’s sound and the injustices tackled by its chosen charity. Throughout the collection, indeterminate drones and burbling electronic folds mirror the sense of "time unbounded, time that envelops [asylum seekers] like a cloud and sinks them like a swamp" described in this essential New Yorker Dispatch from June 2019.

As a standalone piece of work, Old Lavender transfixes like the early tape work of Pauline Oliveros, and we would do well to listen deeply, and consider the indefinite burden of waiting it could be said to mirror. As its accompanying text describes, there is a feeling of “endlessness, unclaimable” to be found in this collection – one that is a paralysing reality faced by far too many in Ireland.

Breezy iDeyGoké - ‘Black Dubh’

On ‘Black Dubh’, Liverpool-based, Nigerian-Irish artist Breezy iDeyGoké likens the cruel duplicity of Direct Provision to the “island’s history of burying children” before asking, “Who’s gone speak up, speak out different?" Last heard on the electrifying ‘Yalla Yalla’ on Sim Simma Soundsystem’s Pass The Aux compilation, the MC is on incendiary form on this short, sharp single dissecting the challenges faced by black people living in Ireland in 2020. From rhymes on white privilege and microaggressions to overt anti-blackness and technology’s role in systematic racism, Breezy iDeyGoké’s gravelly flow booms over heady bass, dusty samples and a propulsive beat.

Opening with a sample from Nina Simone’s ‘Brown Baby’, the track hits hard with lyrics on willful ignorance (“You don't think Black Lives Matter/ Till you're laying in the Mater/ Black nurse, black doctor”), inequality in the justice system (“Prayed for clean record, no dirt to touch name”) and performative allyship (“Seen a lot posting not much listening”). It’s a more than fitting companion piece for Murli’s ‘Till The Wheels Fall Off’ – critical, prescient, and absolutely storming.

The 343 - The 343 Vol.1

With the ongoing situation leaving venues around the world under threat of closure, it’s compilations like this that remind us of how important such spaces are in the harbouring of communities. The 343 is a feminist-led, volunteer-run Queer arts centre in Belfast, which provides rehearsal and studio spaces for artists as well as hosting regular events, from queer open mic nights and drag shows to experimental A/V gigs and film screenings. COVID-19 has, unsurprisingly, left it in financial turmoil, with all events being cancelled since lockdown began.

Alongside a fundraiser launched as part of the Music Venue Trust’s #SaveOurVenues initiative, The 343 Vol.1 was released at the end of April to help keep the space open during the current crisis. While proceeds from the 15-track comp have, since early June, been redirected and split between MASI and BTFA (Black Trans Femmes In The Arts), that gesture in itself, as well as the glut of quality found within, is testament enough to how crucial it is to help spaces like the 343 thrive against adversity. From pulsing electronics (Sonopy, Innocent Heretic, Caskre & Fears) and abstract sound experiments (Vicky Lanagan, Internet Based Sex Work, Natalia Beylis) to post-punk, bedroom pop and new wave (Wakehouse, Elaine Howley, Katie Shannon & Cucina Povera) it’s a stacked collection, as varied as its platform.

Rising Damp - Petrol Factory
(wherethetimegoes)

One of The 343 Vol.1’s standout moments comes from Rising Damp on ‘Jean Crimes’. Over a galloping new wave pulse the Dublin-based artist decries the manipulative and debasing consumerism of the fast fashion industry in typically icy form.

The relentless terror of late-stage-capitalism is just one of the topics Rising Damp confronts on her ferocious debut LP, Petrol Factory. Released on the ever-reliable wherethetimegoes label, the album finds one of Ireland’s most febrile live acts fusing EBM, post-punk and industrial electronic manipulations to cauterise the country’s socio-economic landscape. Tackling subjects from the rise of fascism and the “rebranding of trauma for tourism” to Ireland’s banking crisis and its looming brutalist monuments, Petrol Factory burns Rising Damp’s name into the Irish punk tome.

Repeater Ensemble - ‘Blindfolded/ Punisher’
(Repeater)

With their first dispatch since 2019’s exhaustive Data Dump, the myriad heads of the Repeater arts collective trade "Ballincollig dub-plates, Keith Flint tributes [and] stolen secret vegan cheese recipes" for murmured kosmische and rusty downtempo techno. Featuring an appearance from writer, director and musician Maeve Stone, there’s a sense of loose, dazed devotion to ‘Blindfolded’ and its stripped-back pace. ‘Punisher’, with its chugging rhythm and muffled bleeps, makes for a woozy brew. All proceeds from this one are also going to MASI. What’s not to like?

Fehdah - ‘Day In Shock’

On ‘Day In Shock’, Fehdah continues to develop the Afrofuturist soul and experimental R&B that has made her work so striking since day one. Leaning further into her electronic side, with additional production from analog polymath David Kitt, the Dublin artist and astrophysicist’s songcraft is kaleidoscopic and energised here, marking her most assured work to date. Buoyant grooves and kalimba-like electronics clink between fizzing synths and her own crystalline vocals. Harmonies warp and wrap around one another, at once cool and electrifying.

Like on 2019’s stunning ‘Buffer Fly’, which featured in the very first edition of this column, similarities to the likes of Little Dragon and Lafawndah can be found, but more than ever before Fehdah’s writing and performance feels individual and purposeful. Between this track and a recent live streamed set raising funds for MASI, each of Fehdah’s disparate influences, from the ornamental folk of Mali’s Oumou Sangaré to UKG, is coalescing now as she augments her own radiant sound.

Roslyn Steer Someone’s Yesterday

Roslyn Steer’s PhD thesis examines the aesthetic of screaming, but on her new album Someone’s Yesterday it’s the quietness that grips the most. Across 12 tracks, the Cork artist – who also plays in Morning Veils and Crevice – sings up-close and unadorned, accompanied by little other than her guitar and a dense mist of reverb. There’s something incredibly powerful about the brittle arrangements and murmured vocals on this album, with Steer’s ruminations on endings and the untangling of oneself from the past sounding as stark as the uncertainty and exposure they signal.

‘Scrub Out’, the album’s centrepiece, finds Steer reaching for bleach, vinegar, salt and white wine to remove a deep stain from the fabric of her memory, as mournful strings sway on top of lurching percussion. It’s the sound of someone rising to their feet after being pinned down for so long, and it gives way to a cathartic final section where the beautifully droning organ closer, ‘Next Phase’, pierces through the haunting fog with the suggestion of light and liberation on the horizon.

Olan Monk - Love/Dead
(C.A.N.V.A.S.)

On ‘Tomb’, the closing track of Love/Dead, the sound of a ferry engine to Inis Oírr – a small, remote island off the coast of Connemara on the west of Ireland – rumbles beneath industrial clangs, steady and looming like the Angelus. It makes for a fitting conclusion to an album where expanse frequently gives way to suffocation, where propulsive EBM beats implode into rib-rattling currents of distortion, and where contradictions rule.

Recorded between Connemara and a coroner’s court and mortuary in south London, Love/Dead finds Monk wrestling with the idea of finding inspiration, music and love in a place that used to house the dead, and feeling only isolation and cold mortality in places steeped in memories of summer. ‘New Life’, ‘Lust’ and ‘Fate’ will grab fans of Yves Tumor, Vladislav Delay and Pharmakon, while the near 12-minute ‘Gold’ snarls with the techno-punk phlegm of Girl Band’s The Talkies. Released on his own C.A.N.V.A.S. label, and with guest appearances from PAN-affiliate James K and regular collaborator Maria Somerville, it’s Monk’s boldest work to date – a doom-soaked adrenaline shot for the summer’s lower ebbs.

Junk Drawer - Ready For The House
(Art For Blind)

Written long before lockdown, Year Of The Sofa landed like a sardonic prophecy for 2020. With riffs that burn like bong rips and a few motorik wormholes to jump through, the Belfast quartet ruminate on lethargy, depression and the sense of time flown out the window. It's full of heart, albeit passed through a distortion pedal or ten.

Unbelievable Lake - Forgive
(Sunshine Cult)

Not content with baring his soul just once in the space of six months, Junk Drawer guitarist and vocalist Stevie Lennox plunges into death, decay, isolation and anxiety on Forgive, the new album from his other band, Unbelievable Lake. A single, 43-minute behemoth of doomy psychedelic stoner rock, the album was recorded mostly live in St. Matthias’ Church in Ballyeglish, Co. Derry, under the watchful eye of producer Niall Doran. Lennox ended up rewriting and re-recording the lyrics after his grandmother was buried in the same church a few months after the original sessions and, while they’re pretty sparing, there is an anguished swing in his vocals that curls like smoke around the billowing, fuzz-drenched riffs. Absolutely massive.

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