By Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
June 23, 2002
RAMONA, Calif. -- Clannad. To simply call them a great Celtic band from Ireland would be an understatement. To say that they helped pioneer the Celtic Renaissance that's taken the rest of the world by storm would be closer to the mark. But then so have many other bands from the Emerald Isle.
A truer statement might be that these two families from Gweedore in County Donegal on Ireland's Northwest coast channel the hearts and voices of an ancient people and an even more ancient land. To listen is to be enchanted, for true to the name of their anthology, Clannad is indeed a "Magical Gathering."
There are certain adjectives that always seem to accompany any review of Clannad's version of Celtic music: "ethereal," "haunting," "wistful." Along with the famously ubiquitous phrase, "ambient strains," they are forthwith officially banned from this review in hopes that more earthy words shall take their place.
At their best, these songs are full-bodied Gaelic incantations about ancient forests and ancestors; about the wild and tender places of love, tragedy and loss. Lightness yes, but always tethered to melancholy lest lightness be traitor to its brooding Irish soul.
And otherworldliness? Such dichotomy is mere projection. Maire Brennan, Enya's older sister and Clannad's lead vocalist, affirms that their inspiration comes not from heaven but from the "valleys and cliffs and mountains," reflecting a mystic relationship with the land itself.
Where they leave that grounding to the land and the storytelling of people of the land to explore the New Age Celtic sound they are so famous for (most evident in the second disc of this set, and in music from late '80s and early '90s), they also lose their unique voice and power.
In "Th'os Fa'n Ch'sta," late in the first CD, they adopt an edgier, contemporary folk-rock style, with guitar leads by Ed Deanne, which clearly signals their departure from the old world and into the new. It's no big secret, however, that the 21st Century, like Celtic New Age music, is highly overrated. However laudable and at times interesting their explorations into this contemporary "ether," this music has neither the deeper resonance of the old songs nor the magical playfulness of the faery world which alone makes the heartbreak of Irish music bearable.
The first CD features truly spectacular traditional arrangements spanning the '70s and '80s. Starting with "N'S'Ina L'," a sound reminiscent of Pentangle's John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, the collection moves through a glad rendition of "The Galtee Hunt" (done also by the Castle Ceili Band with two members of the Chieftains), and a 9/8 slip jig of "Fairly Shot of Her."
There are poignant tales of abduction in "Alamein," of immigration and soldiers of fortune. "Si'il a R'n" tells a story of a such a soldier (such soldiers were called the Wild Geese who left Ireland to join the French Army after the Williamite war of 1691). "Si'il a R'n" is a rendition of William Butler Yeats' poem "Down by the Sally Gardens," a song made famous by the well-known singer Elizabeth Cronin of County Cork.
A jazzy, electric piano in "Ar a Ghabh'il 'N a 'Chuain Damh" marks the introduction of the younger Brennan sister and future Celtic goddess, Enya. Her lead vocals are featured on the song "An T'All," from Clannad's watershed album, "Fuaim," in which their folk-rock-jazz explorations drew the attention of a Yorkshire musical director - which led to Clannad's ventures into tv and motion picture soundtracks.
Albums represented here range from "Clannad" and" Clannad 2" to "Fuaim," "Crann Ull" (mostly acoustic) and finally to the transitional "Magical Ring," with the breakthrough "Theme from Harry's Game," marking their foray into musical soundtrack genre for movies like "Patriot Games" and "The Legend of Robin Hood." Written in 1982, "Theme from Harry's Game," which won them a Billboard World Music award and was nominated for a Grammy in 1993, is perhaps the best of Clannad's coloring outside traditional Celtic lines.
With Maire's pure voice, the band's trademark choral harmonies and Prophet 5 synthesizer, it commanded the rapt attention of a whole new audience both in the United States and the world over and is perhaps the best representation of their unique interpretation of the old tradition to modern forms.
The second CD, starting with songs from "Legend" (1984), contains an important song, "Ancient Forest," which was a collaboration with Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke.
It's a meeting point of Clannad's acoustic instrumentation with the emerging New Age tendencies (referred to in the rest of this review as NA). Here they are out of the closet, so to speak, with increasingly strong emphasis on electric guitar. In Maire's duet with U2's Bono, "In a Lifetime," the transformation is distressingly vapid and vexing. Only one other song on the CD is as ill-conceived: "Sirius," which taking itself far too seriously, does the harmonic, NA "fusion thing" with an attendant nod to Greenpeace.
After hearing these two pieces one finds it necessary to clear the neural synapses with whatever caustic ale is handy and stagger on to better, older days. The only collaboration here that doesn't seem traitorous is "Something to Believe In," a fine duet at the end of the first CD with Maire Brennan and Bruce Hornsby. Their vocals blend seamlessly and Hornsby's melancholic piano hits authentic chords that sound true to the heart and soul of Eire.
Most of the rest of the 2nd CD avoids the "cinematic rock approach," as someone coined it, and flourishes in pieces from the romantic, atmospheric "Now is Here," and the hypnotic, layered harmonies of "Caislean D'ir," to the lite rock-ballad "Almost Seems too Late," which though highly ornate has a restrained quality with sparse arrangements which suit Maire's feathery but potent vocals quite well.
After the departure of Pol Brennan, the four remaining Clannad members recorded their eighth album, "Anam" (meaning soul), in 1990, where they once again hit deeper Celtic veins in a return to a more natural, acoustic, pastoral folk sound.
Their last albums represented in the anthology are: "Banba" ('93), "Lore" ('96) and "Landmarks" ('98). The songs here are a more skillful combination of traditional arrangements with contemporary style. Electric guitar from Anto Drennan on several songs is here more deftly woven into the fabric of Clannad's unique Celtic sound, making a happier, wiser marriage of old and new.
Only Celtic demigods and goddesses can rightly pass judgement on this music, and such I am though generations removed from the Collinses of County Cork. With claim to that distant hemapoesis I will say this much and no more; that though I am more fond of Clannad's more raw, traditional and bewitching strains of Celtic music, many of the more contemporary offerings of this anthology are, as the brothers and sisters of Clannad hope them to be, important landmarks in the rich heritage of singing Ireland.
Cindy Hasz is a nurse and writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com.