Sunday, February 11, 2007

Horslips: Their best album

Here's an updated version of an Amazon review of "The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony," one of the few concept albums that did not embarrass its listeners three decades after the prog-rock mid-70s, at least in my opinion. Since the wife hates Jethro Tull, however, she may not like this either. (P.S. I do see that on her blog at she did put up a nice portrait of the Fab Five in their prog-glam Don Kirschner presents In Concert-ish heyday, so maybe she now realizes Horslips are better than Tull, and more humble too I am sure if less enriched after their decades-long legal battle to regain control of their tapes.) But, it's my tip of the cloth cap to a literate and accomplished recording.

Well, it's a toss-up between this and "Tain" as the two best Horslips LPs, and since I gave their debut "Happy to Meet" a full five, I'd give these other two albums even more. Neck-and-neck at first, but the Book of Invasions gets the horse's nod over the Tain. Book is a bit less dated in its arrangements. The pace is more sustained. The tightness of the band has been honed by years on stage. The prog leanings of their career's start seem--after Dance the Cold Winter's trad detour--seem to have been supplanted by a more medieval sounding, courtlier spark. Hearing this after practically memorizing the LP--it was the first of their LPs more widely distributed outside Ireland and Britain--this ain't rock and roll, this is rouse & roll. Coming out of the mid-70s overkill from so many "serious" musos, Horslips kept their sense of humor and cleverness, which I supposed enabled even their blandest albums (such as preceded this two back) somewhat worthwhile.

Unlike the other Horslips albums I have reviewed on Amazon, this album gains force from its accrued impact, rather than its individual tracks. Like "Táin," "Book" is meant to work as a unified single piece of music, as the subtitle defines it. Songs are chapters in a book, verses of a poem.

Instrumental and sung passages alternate in the three movements of the album from Geantrai--cheerier songs-- to Goltrai-- laments--to Suantrai-- songs of sleep or dreams. These unify as in storytelling various "branches" of the tale and classify them in ancient Irish categories of narrative craft and intent. It's a "Celtic symphony," therefore, in the ebbs and crests of the musical representation and the lyrical explanation of the energetic clashes and couplings the Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhala) relates-- the tribes who landed in pre-Christian Ireland successively to fight over its land and its wealth.

I always have a bit of a problem with lyrics from this band; they stick maddeningly in the memory--few bands wrote such catchy tunes that aren't jingles or dance-pop--but sometimes I think they fall flat in their rhyming or imagery, even as many other times they are sung as perfectly terse and cutting, fitting the aggression or the tenderness of the battles and couplings they narrate from one of the rhetorical skills preserved in these oldest surviving Irish epics, I reckon more than two thousand years old as they were passed down orally long before their manuscript forms. They do combine the grand metaphor with the colloquial taunt in a style that I guess might be surprisingly faithful to the shifts in register of the Old Irish text! Admittedly, compressing a long epic into forty minutes challenges the most talented, and Horslips proved here that they could not only repeat their success with the Táin, but bettered it by skills honed over their intervening three years of relentless gigging. No other band had the literary skills as well as the musical imagination to pull this off. "Book" should make you want to look up the originals--on or off-line now, handily. As a teen hearing this, I then turned to reading the original stories.

Rock and folk, tradition and innovation: few groups can combine these strands well. Horslips, in this and their other albums, even if they did not always reach such heights as here, were accomplished original artists. These guardians and transmitters of the storytelling treasure here are amplified; their determination to make the tales relevant as heard and as read remains impressive.

The clash of the tough tribes invading Ireland and the De Danaan defenders echoes through the shrieking guitars and whining winds and keys and ominous marching tattooes. It's a visceral album begging for great headphones and quality speakers. Vocals are winningly humble or dauntingly taunting, and the bold and tender tales are told with economy and intelligence.

1 comment:

Guy Trelford said...

The Undertones John / Sean O'Neill did not co-author the book 'It Makes You Want To Spit!'

It was a completely different person (albeit with the same name. The Sean O'Neill in question is my old punk buddy aka SeanyRotten.

You also seem to have some kinda problem regards my name! Would you care to elaborate? Not Irish enough for you?

Guy Trelford 13/03/2009