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ALTAN - Island Angel GLCD1137

For those of you who may not have come across Altan before, they are (to plagiarise Douglas Adams) "the risingest young traditional band" in Ireland at the moment. 'Island Angel' is the band's fourth album, and is in many ways the best so far.

The copy which I had for review was a cassette with no inlay card, so details (other than the name of the band and the album!) are either as deduced by me or as passed down by the oral tradition. Despite this lack of reliable information, I was delighted to get a preview of what is definitely a superb piece of work. The album is crisp, clear and extremely entertaining, with all the polish which I have come to associate with Altan's live and recorded performances.

As with the previous three Altan albums, the tracks are split between instrumentals (8) and songs (5) with all but one of the songs sung in Gaelic. Both songs and instrumentals show a strong Donegal influence: one song, 'Brid Og ni Mhaille', has a well-known counterpart in Scotland. "Bridget O'Mally", and the instrumental tracks abound with mazurkas, Donegal highlands, a Scott Skinner reel, and even a strathspey.

The eight instrumental tracks are perhaps a little heavy on reels, but Irish music tends to be and in fact my favourite track was probably the three reels 'The Humours of Andytown, the 'Kylebrack Rambler' and 'The Gladstone Reel'. This track shows off the energy and creativity of the band, as well as the ability of half a dozen brilliant individual musicians to play as a unit. The improvisations, harmonies and ringing strings all seem to work beautifully, and the result is traditional music at its very best.

There is both familiar and original instrumental material on the album: new compositions by Frankie Kennedy and others, little-known traditional tunes, and old favourites either reworked or barely recognisable in Donegal versions. As well as plenty of whole-group tracks, there are two tracks which particularly feature the fiddlers: track 5, two jigs including an unusual version of 'The Tenpenny Bit', shows off fiddles and bouzouki, and track 12 features the fiddling of Ciaran Tourish in a strathspey as well as Frankie Kennedy's flute in the two reels. The flute also shines in the slow air which finished the album.

Unlike previous albums, there is a discernible difference in character between the songs and the instrumentals: most of the songs are only minimally arranged, and are taken at a much slower pace than the driving instrumental tracks. Two of the Gaelic songs are beautiful, slow, moving renditions which show the stunning purity of Mairead's voice and are also remarkable for the sensitive and deft guitar (the work of guest musician Daithi Sproule?) which is the only accompaniment. The fourth Gaelic song is a very upbeat, almost rocky number with plenty of rhythm which added a different flavour to the album: more like the Bothy Band, perhaps, and very nice as a change. The English song, a version of 'The Jug of Punch', was my least favourite track, although there must always be a worst track on any album and with 12 other excellent tracks being the worst is no great criticism.

I was disappointed that Frankie Kennedy's flute playing does not get the exposure it deserves on Island Angel. The flute slow air is very pleasant, but with the exception of the odd 32 bars on other tracks it is the only real showcase for Frankie's playing on this album. I hope this will be rectified on Altan's next release.

Talking of which, it is perhaps time Altan produced a live album. For the 660-odd people who saw them live at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, this album comes close to capturing that performance but there is still not quite as much energy and excitement in a studio recording (although we are spared Frankie's jokes!) as in their live appearances.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 2 of The Living Tradition magazine.