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MAIRE BREATNACH "The Voyage of Bran" Celtic Heartbeat/Atlantic 7567-82734-2

The stigma of the dreaded concept album in rock music fortunately does not extend to traditional and folk music. There is a distinguished, if not prodigious, tradition of albums which set to music Irish mythology and legend, from Horslips classics Book of Invasions and The Tain, to the work of Sean Davey (The Voyage of Brendan, Granuaile) and Micheal oSuilleabhain. Maire Breatnach is fast becoming a legend in her own time as a startling young fiddler and composer, richly deserving the plaudits of Bill Whelan (composer of Riverdance in which she featured).

She enlists eminent guests including Sharon Shannon, Steve Cooney, Liam oMaonlai, Tommy Hayes and Altan's Mark Kelly, but it is Maire's deep and fullsome fiddle and viola which carry the listener through the pre-Christian Irish mythic tale of Bran, son of Febal, who was called in a vision to begin a voyage across the sea to a mystical land of content. The atmospheric tunes tend to the slow and mournful rather than uptempo, with the exception of Maarein which deals with the joyful but ill-fated return of the voyagers to Sruhn Brain.

With only 2 of 12 being vocal tracks, the lack of narrative could leave the listener struggling for the inspiration behind these "musical cameos from Bran's journey" (the charge of self-indulgence comes with the territory of concept albums). However, the concise sleeve notes manage to evocatively and informatively summarise the legend in less than the 50 quatrains Bran is said to have told his tale of woe ("of those who seek a new life and find themselves displaced, unable to return to their place of origin"). And perhaps part of the allure of such mythology is the freedom given to the imagination by the lack of narrative detail.

Maire's compositional skills (all the pieces are original) and varied influences shine in the visionary An tIolar Firean duet with Liam oMaonlai, while the remarkable range of instrumentation and percussion by Tommy Hayes is used sparingly to create a fluent accompaniment which could certainly stand apart from the tale. The atmosphere of a sojourn could perhaps have been enhanced by splicing the pieces together, perhaps by keyboard, but as it is the strength of the individual pieces allows the album to be dipped into or boarded for the duration. An accomplished work all round, Breatnach has few peers in the creation of epic yet intimate traditional-based compositions.

Kevin Cooper

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This album was reviewed in Issue 13 of The Living Tradition magazine.