by Le Fénix
“Everyone’s Irish on St Patrick’s Day”, so the marketing division at Guinness will have you believe and, sure enough, each year on 17 March, regardless of creed, culture or colour significant portions of the population don their favourite item of green (or orange) clothing and partakes in the colourful, drunken Gaelic-themed revelry.
The biggest day of celebration in Ireland* holds the curious distinction of perhaps being the national holiday most widely embraced by those who have no demonstrable or intrinsic ties to a said nation – naadam, by comparison, seems to barely register a blip on the radar outside of Mongolia, for example. This is in no small part due to the noticeable Irish presence in cities across the globe and the meaningful and extensive contributions that such communities have made wherever they have gone. From Boston to Brisbane, New York to Newcastle, Irish pubs can be found almost anywhere you go and is the destination of choice for ex-pats yearning for a taste of home and otherwise for those seeking out a dose of Irish-style hospitality in the form traditional food, beverage and music.
Music is often considered an essential cornerstone of any national culture. From the unique multi-tonal drone of Central Asian throat singing to the seductive sounds of salsa, music’s evocative power enables listeners to draw immediate connections between it and particular cultures and subcultures. Irish music is no exception to this with a rich musical tapestry based on Celtic history and driven by traditional instruments such as the harp, fiddle and bodhrán. In more recent times, this richness has been showcased by contemporary acts such Riverdance, U2 and Enya. But what of the good acts, you say? You know, the ones that don’t involve Bono or tap shoes. For this, Thin Lizzy’s pioneering hard rock and the ultra smooth blues licks of the late great guitar maestro Gary Moore have proved to be significantly more palatable contributions to the tomes of Irish music.
A number of years ago on my first visit to New York City, some friends and I stopped off at Eamonn’s Bar and Grill, an Irish tavern in the Wall Street district**, for an alcoholic pit-stop after having visited the Ground Zero memorial. Making ourselves at home and priming ourselves for a long innings, it wasn’t long before the owner of the pub came over to our table with a bottle of Irish whiskey and accompanying shot glasses, telling us that the stakes had been raised and that he was going to get us “proper fucked”. As the late afternoon imbibing progressed into the night, by pure chance one of us discovered that the in-house jukebox inexplicably sported a massive selection of obscure extreme metal and grind acts from across the globe, even including several from Australia’s scene. It wasn’t long before each of us was queuing up to feed the machine our tattered dollar bills in order to have our favourite songs played and creating a soundtrack . A number of us from that group would return to Eammon’s two years later to re-enact that experience, though upon having their jukebox hijacked and with no end to the wall of noise in sight, patrons in the pub that day made it known to bar staff that they were none too happy about the choice of music being played, most likely because it had killed the Gaelic ambiance inside Eammon’s. I couldn’t help but think whether their reaction might have been different had we been more considerate and chosen some Irish bands instead.
So, as the town is painted green, white and orange, let’s explore the sounds of six acts from the Emerald Isle which will provide some slightly more eclectic and obscure entries on your musical playlist for St Patrick’s Day and might have been better embraced by the patrons at Eammon’s:
Ilenkus – This five-piece from Galway derives its name from the Greek word elenchus which is the foundation of the Socratic method, whereby debate is facilitated as someone refutes the argument of another by providing evidence contrary to the conclusion of that argument. One gets a sense that a similar musical discourse takes place within the band’s sound, where the frenzied noise of chaotic hardcore is counterbalanced by passages of serene instrumentation and post-metal crescendo, engineered by three frontmen/guitarists who alternate lead vocal duties and a supertight rhythm section. The clip to “Over the Fire, Under the Smoke” presented below, at first glance, bears strong resemblance to that of “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve; however, as it progresses, it becomes apparent from the reaction of bystanders just exactly what is going on and how audacious a project it was to create this video.
ZOM – Take some classic death metal, the cavernous drums of Dragged Into Sunlight and a heavy dose of reverberated screams, throw them into a big dirty metal blender with an added dash of blackened thrash and the result you would get is ZOM, the purveyors of all things filthy hailing from the “Anti-Matter Universe” – an original nickname for Dublin if I’ve ever seen one. With their feet firmly entrenched in the old school camp, the groove, tempo and the subtle punk undertones will no doubt send beer-soaked bodies smashing into one another and heads banging in unison to the riff-driven, pounding putridity.
Altar of Plagues – The Dublin-based black metal trio received near universal acclaim upon the release of their album Mammal in 2011, an epic exploration, set over four songs, of dark moods and atmospherics, segueing into subtle passages of experimentation before making way for its cathartic close. The excellent follow-up Teethed Glory and Injury saw the band’s focus shift considerably towards the unorthodox with unhinged yet effective melodies, industrial effects and noise sampling featuring prominently in their songwriting. Mammal, however, stands as the band’s defining opus and the band stands as a crucial player among a group of unique artists whose works have helped define the post-millennial era of black metal.
Mourning Beloveth – A band whose sound and scope is as grand as any image of the luscious Irish countryside that your imagination can conjure up. The downtempo approach and sparse musical nature of doom metal often sees a bare canvas laid down instrumentally as its starting point. The manner in which Mourning Beloveth colour that canvass is truly remarkable; the grace of tristful clean vocals, the monstrous growls and melodic heaviness all underscore the sense of grief, despondency and anguish the band’s music conveys. In fashioning their melancholic brand of death doom, the gentlemen from Athy erect a musical monument for the listener to behold.
Gama Bomb – The party's about to get started over in Northern Ireland and these crazy lads from Newry are going to be leading the charge, ensuring that it kicks on well into the night. These neo-thrashers have one simple mandate: fun, and lots of it. This is abundantly meted out in in the form of breakneck riffing, an obsession with 1980s pop culture and a light and goofy vocal delivery that's somewhere between Rob Halford and Jello Biafra. Line up the pints of Guinness, Bulmers and the shots of Jamison and brace yourselves because things are about to get very, very messy!
Primordial – No list of Irish music would be complete without a nod to arguably its most famous metal export who are closing in on 30 years of existence as a band. “Epic” is about the only way to describe Primordial's sound which fuses classic black metal melody with pagan and folk musical elements. The driving force behind all this this is undoubtedly legendary frontman Alan Averill whose impassioned vocals have come to be a calling card for the legendary Celtic Metal progenitors with a lyrical emphasis on Irish tradition and history. His delivery is stirring as it is rustic and, when coupled with the massive rolling tribal rhythms and traditional melodies, serves almost like a rallying cry calling troops into battle. Turn this up loud, close your eyes, picture yourself atop a mountain overlooking the green Irish landscape and try not to be totally inspired.
*History and politics aside, “Ireland” is used here to denote both the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland. St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday in both the Republic and the North and, very interestingly, in the Canadian city of Labrador and the Caribbean island of Montserrat as well.
**It appears to have now moved to Midtown Manhattan.