Altan poisoned glen 90Great bar room instrumental work from these chilled Celtic masters.

Label: Compass Records
Time: 13 tracks / 52 minutes

Different Celtic bands have their own special take on the genre. Iona has a proggy and atmospheric style built on a huge dose of spiritual purpose; Solas’s stunning virtuosity makes breathtaking listening; The Chieftains delight in raw collaborations with the biggest names; while The Pogues blast their way through with sheer punk spirit. Altan, well…   

I have started to feel something of the ‘almost’ with Altan. The band’s name has brought excitement to mind since I first heard them back in the eighties, but their last release, a celebration of 25 years of recording, seemed muted and lacklustre. Very little of it was memorable after the player finished and the orchestra that made the release special seemed to suck energy out of the music, rather than add to it.

Although it is stronger and has several high points, neither is this one quite the release that I was hoping for. Again it is a definite reaction to Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh’s vocal timbre. Her voice lacks appeal and I almost expect it to crack at various points – and with half of the vocals in Gaelic, there are fewer stories to get lost in for those who don’t know the language. But this may be purely a personal reaction.

That aside, the modestly unassuming instrumental part of the disc brings to mind a relaxed group of Irish friends sitting in a bar with a guitar or bouzouki on their knees, fiddle and accordion trading leads. They could not achieve a more intimate purity to the sound on Poison Glen; the beautifully uncluttered mix catches every breath of air that a string moves.

Half of this release is vocal-free. The Celtic sea-shanty edge to the fastest set of reels “The Wringing of my Shirt/Reel in A/ Ciaran Tourish’s Reel” (and another batch two tracks on) conjures images of dancers interweaving as the different instruments rise and fall in the background or take turns to lead. Dermot Byrne’s accordion takes plenty of initiative on this disc and adopts an almost synthesizer-like role throughout, soloing here and filling there.   

Several of the melodies are stronger than those on their 25th Anniversary Celebration [], particularly “Cailin Deas Crúile na mBó,” accompanied by achingly plucked guitar; the lovely, Clannad-like air “An Ghealog;” and “The House on the Corner,” with its beautiful ensemble playing. The instrumental reel “The Wheels of the World” also stands out. Possibly the slowest track of all, it has a stately mood that would accompany a walking-pace dance.

With percussion limited to occasional shaker fire, discreet bongos and some delicate hand chimes, Altan are chilled on this ideal winter evening mood-setter. Heading now for the 30-year mark, they are ageing with confident grace and sound sure of their art.


Derek Walker