Alan Stivell, Brian Boru (Dreyfus, 1997)  


Tradition meets modern rock in this lush fusion of sound. Unlike many such crossover albums, Stivell has managed to maintain a consistency to this effort, while exploring a wide range of contemporary rock styles. This album adheres closely to a theme, the study of traditional tunes in a totally modern context. Even the one completely original Stivell tune has a direct inspiration from a traditional Irish theme. Diverse textures are displayed through a unique mixing of modern electric guitars, keyboards, and electric harp with the more traditional bodhran, bouzouki, bombard, Great Highland bagpipe, and snare drums.

The journey for the listener begins with a driving version of the traditional "Brian Boru." Upbeat, rocking, and exciting, this familiar melody quickly brings the listener into this modern world of traditional music. The strong percussion and the exciting transition from Stivell's deep, rich voice to the haunting vocals of Maire Breatnach during the chorus will rapidly lodge itself in the listener's permanent subconscious, from whence it will surface again and again. This is immediately followed by an even more driving modern tune entitled "Let the Plinn," consisting of almost all percussion and spoken vocals, with occasional breaks in this theme for exciting instrumental solos or a vocal chorus of women's voices, provided by Dorean and Sandra MacKay of Tannas, and Mary MacLean.

It's almost a relief to get away from the percussive opening of the album when we reach the peaceful and lulling harp lines and heartfelt vocals of the haunting Peadar O Doirnin tune "Women of Ireland." This delightful rendition will leave the listener longing for more. Robert Burn's delightful "Ye Banks and Braes" follows, delivered as a ballad, complete with alternating vocals by Stivell and Tracey Booth of Sons of the Desert.

Mairi's Wedding is my favorite song on the album, beginning with a moment of reflective harp music, which gradually builds to the familiar Irish tune "Teidhir Abhaile Riu" ("Go Home With You," a song whose lyrics tell Mary that her match is made with a piper, but seems to imply she might love someone else.) Following these melancholy lines, the song then breaks into the joyful wedding march, making the listener want to get up and dance. The contemplative harp lines of the Irish melody are artfully woven into the upbeat Scottish march. This tune truly gives a sense of the celebration of the wedding, with a bit of the introspection and confusion such occasions bring along with the gaiety, hidden among the revelers. "Cease Fire" makes imaginative use of instruments such as ukulele, bouzouki, bongos, and flute to name a few. This very Irish tune the dance feel of the previous track. "De, ha bla, " displays more of Stivell amazing touch on the harp, with a fervent birthday wish. A whole collection of music follows, with Hibridean mouth music, Scottish strathpeys, and breton highland dance represented in the driving and very modern-sounding "Sword Dance."

Stivell closes the album with nostalgia, first with a tune of his own, "Parlamant Lament," a sad song about the rebuilding of the breton parliament that burned in 1994, and then "Land of My Fathers," with a whole choir of backing vocals. Stivell's breton roots clearly show in these songs, as he delivers his sentiment with passion. In fact, passion might be the key word for this entire album, for it clearly displays Stivell's strong feelings for his native land, his Celtic roots, and the traditions of his people. These traditions come alive while he pursues what the future can bring when blended with this rich and glorious past. If you like the modern and the traditional, this album is well worth exploring.

[Jo Morrison]

 See Terri Windling's essay Travels Through Brittany on the Endicott Studio Web site.