April 2018 Album of the Month: Altan

ALTAN (2018)
The Gap of Dreams

Now in its 31st year, Ireland’s mighty Altan shows no signs of letting up. Not if The Gap of Dreams is any measure. The album’s title comes from a line in a Francis Carlin poem and references the space between this world and the Otherworld and I’ll de damned if I know in which Altan resides.

You know you’re in for a magical ride from the get go. The title track is appended to a tune called “Nia’s Jig” (in honor of singer/fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s 14-year-old daughter), and another titled “The Beekeeper.” It’s your classic Celtic Big Set, except it’s more accomplished than most—the sort into which instruments don’t jump in and out, they slide through small spaces so adroitly that one never notices the seams where they join. You’ll get another accomplished pastiche on a collection labeled “A Spirited Night,” and indeed it is, with Martín Tourish muscular accordion tossing off precision, staccato-like runs that clear the way for Ní Mhaonaigh’s fiddle to launch into the second tune. The effect is joyous, magical, and magisterial—as we have indeed crossed a special threshold. “The Tullaghan Lasses” is an equally memorable set; this one featuring fiddles chasing their own musical tails.

Ní Mhaonaigh has always been at the center of the Altan swirl—she with the voice of a delicate bird that stands in marked contrast to her robust fiddle playing. As she has matured, so too has her voice—now sporting a subtle burnishing at the edges that makes it less fragile. “The Month of January” is a like a lullaby for adults, and her lead on “Bucach Shíl Andaí” takes us to sonic places analogous to material from Clannad (which actually did this song years ago). To really get a sense of where she’s headed, try “Níon a’ Bhaoigheallaigh,” * which is edgy and throbbing in all the right places. As songs such as these suggest, Ní Mhaonaigh showcases the Irish language, though she’s also superb in English, as we hear on “DarkInishowen,” a lamentation on being separated from the heart’s object of affection.

Everything on this album rings, clicks, swoops, and wails as it should. Listen hard also for the crystalline purity of guitar work from Daíthí Sproule and Mark Kelly, and softer percussive notes from Ciarán Curran’s bouzouki. The Gap of Dreams leaves one with little doubt as to why Altan stands at the pinnacle of modern Irish music.

*This may have been renamed from the preview release. Also, the sync is slightly off in the video.  

Rob Weir

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