Shantalla – From The East Unto The West (2019) review
Cliff de Booy
This winter my girlfriend knitted me a new sweater. Beforehand I feared it would be itchy and scratchy, but no, the minute I put it on it just felt comfy and warm, nothing pulled or tugged, it was as if I’d had this sweater for years and years. It just felt snug and safe. It instantly became my favourite comfy sweater.
Well that’s exactly how the new
album made me feel. Within the first 3 songs the music felt like that new sweater that Anna gave me. Nice, comfy and warm. And around The Cameronian Set, track 8 on the album, I wrote another small line in my notebook: ‘this music feels like coming home’.
It really does. It is this happy feeling that always goes with Irish folk, the variety of song choice, the quality of the music, the lovely ironic humour in the liner notes, everything fits on this album. So much so that after two listens I already wanted to start writing this introduction. So here it is.
Shantalla’s ‘From The East Unto The West’. But first, let’s do a proper introduction of the band.
Do I really need to introduce Shantalla? Ever since their first gig in 1997 and the release of their debut album Shantalla, way back in 1998, the Irishmen Kieran Fahy (fiddle, viola), Joe Hennon (guitar, vocals), Michael Horgan (uilleann pipes, flute, whistles) and Gerry Murray (accordion, whistles, bouzouki, piano) and Scottish Helen Flaherty (vocals, bodhrán, shakers) steadily made a name for themselves, growing out to be a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Irish folk scene, but also in the balfolk and the fantasy festival world. Their second album Seven Evenings, Seven Mornings followed in 2001, and again got a good reception in the folk world.
In 2005, the band took a temporary break, focussing on other projects. Among them
The Helen Flaherty Band,
In 2009 the band reformed, adding bouzouki and guitar player Simon Donnelly -yes also Irish- to the line-up. In this formation work began on their 3rd album Turas, which was released in 2011. Again the reactions were really positive.
After a period of touring it became somewhat quiet around Shantalla, until the good news came out earlier this year that the band was back in the studio. The fruits of their labour, the 4th CD From the East Unto The West is going to be released in the coming weeks. The presale is running as I write these words. From The East Unto The west is recorded by
over at Folk Studios and
at Elle Studios.
-Comment from Shantalla: “Now that you mentioned Pascale, she has been our live sound engineer for over 21 years, it would be nice to thank her for that!-
To finish of the credits, From The East Unto The West was mixed by Philip Masure and the artwork was done by
Now the big question is: “Was From The East Unto The West worth the wait?” The answer: a resounding “yes!”
THE ALBUM: FROM THE EAST UNTO THE WEST
The first song, Captain Ward, sets the mood. Within seconds you know what to expect from this album. Good quality, Irish folk, traditional, but with a Shantalla twist, and cheerful, oh-so-cheerful. It’s the accordion flute and rhythm guitar that get the folk party going.
After this typical folk intro Captain Ward eases into a mid-tempo ballad from the 17th century about a pirate captain capturing a ship sent by the king of England to catch him. Of course Captain Ward has to brag about it and he wrote a letter to the king of England stating that His Majesty might be the king on land, but he, Captain Ward, is the king at sea.
This traditional ballad flows easily into the second part of the song called Paddy Goes East written by Gerry Murray. And yes the sound of the lead melody, together with the slightly different rhythm, does make the second part of Captain Ward sound as if good old Paddy had taken his accordion and fiddle on a wee tour of Eastern Europe.
The mood then switches for the first time, in the intro of the second song. An accordion solo reminding me a bit of
Wouter en de Draak
and their more French approach to folk music. The tone even gets a bit dark, when the rhythm guitar and violin creep in, made even stronger by the sound of crows in the background. The stage is set for a dark slow song, so it should not have surprised me that Helen Flaherty starts to sing Twa Corbies, but I really didn’t recognise it from the intro.
The track notes accompanying this song are also really cool:
-“The Twa Corbies is a cynical Scottish parody of a 17th century English song
The Three Ravens.
In this dark version, the corbies (crows) say that the dead knight’s hawk and hound have forsaken him and are off chasing game, while his lover has already moved on to another knight. Since no-one knows or cares where his body lies, the corbies talk in detail about the meal they will make of him, plucking out his eyes and using his hair for their nest. That’s recycling folks!” What was that about the Scots being cynical!?
The third album track, Ynis Avalach will take some doing from the balfolk dancers, I’m sure of it! It starts with a tricot, named as such in Brittany because it knits an andro and a hanterdro together. Then the music turns into a slip jig called Dever The Dancer, before it ends in two classic reels called Toss The Feathers #1 and Toss The Feathers # 2. Good luck dancing to that guys!
The good news is that Ynis Avalach is a really nice medley of songs. The first part Ynis Avalach, is a song Shantalla know from
You can see them perform it on
together with Fiona in the video below.
the album version again has that slight French Wouter en de Draak feel to it before the flute adds a lovely Irish flavour. That French feel is mostly there because of Joe Hennon’s subtle guitar work. I’ve been a fan of the way he plays for years. Actually from the moment I heard the live version of the Sidhenearlahi Set on Omnia’s Pagan Folk album. Yes he is mostly a rhythm guitarist, but he puts all kinds of nice twists and turns in his playing. Squeezing in all kinds of variations on the theme he plays and I just love that.
But he’s not the only one shining in this song, so do all the instrumentalists. In the
Shantalla uploaded on their website to introduce From the East Unto The West, Joe mentions it himself, that thát is one of the strengths of the band, the many lead instruments they can use. And he has a point. let’s take this song for instance. So in keeping with folk tradition it starts with a nice guitar rhythm and then the violin slides in. I just love how Kieran Fahy constantly does that. So subtle. But anyway, with the flute joining in, you think that this is it. A flute/violin duet. But no. It’s flute with another flute doing the second ‘voice’ while the violin keeps sliding in and out for added flavour. Michael’s uilleann pipes follow in the flow with Simon’s guitar now picking up the melody as well, then the accordion joins in, making the sound even fuller and richer.
In the second part Dever The Dancer, the violin takes centre stage, joined by the flute for a lovely cheerful slip jig, but again a low whistle, guitar and accordion step in and create a strong rich sound. The uilleann pipes lead us into the last part of Ynis Avalach, followed by some lovely bodhrán /guitar rhythms, before the whole band joins in to finish it all. I love instrumental folk if it is done like this. Such a rich and strong sound, so much variety. This just has to put a smile on everyone’s face.
here is Shantalla performing Ynis Avalanch together with Fiona at Castlefest 2014
On to the next song! Lead vocalist Helen Flaherty’s voice fits perfectly in Shantalla’s sound. She has a warm, strong voice full with emotion that she uses to her full advantage in the first ballad of the album, A Band Of Gold. A lovey story about a romance that was not to be….
I have to say, Helen shines on this. She is such a beautiful singer. Powerful, in full control of her voice, she sings this ballad with so much emotion, you can feel every ounce of despair, regret and loneliness in it. Pure beauty.
Shantalla are masters in contrast. After the intense loneliness of A Band Of Gold they could not have produced a greater contrast than by putting Magic Happens after it. The tin whistle intro cuts right through the intensity left by A Band Of Gold. Lovely, just lovely. The first part is a jig, again written by Gerry Murray. This jig is in the good old folk tradition, using just guitar and tin whistle, (ok, doubled tin whistle to make the sound richer.) The fiddle and accordion then take over and play us a composition of
The Three Wishes. As the set finishes with
Charlie Lennon’sMorning Sunday, with the uilleann pipes and accordion taking the lead, my notebook says; ‘an upbeat version of
. And I’m almost surprised the band kept the instrumentation so ‘simple’, but that is one of the strengths of this band, knowing what to add or not add, and when to do that.
ADDING ANOTHER MUSICAL STYLE
From this instrumental balfolk song we move on to The War Of The Crofters and a totally different musical genre. This song is originally written by the Scottish singer-songwriter
It is because of that diversity in not only songs, but also genres that I really enjoy From The East Unto The West. The album combines old traditionals, instrumental balfolk tunes and some singer-songwriter pieces. All three types of songs have their own style and feel. And it is the combination of those styles, tied together by Shantalla’s craftmanship that make From The East Unto The West such a joy to listen to.
I also have to mention Helen again. On this song you clearly hear her Scottish tongue. Now if a Scottish person talks, I always feel they are already singing. It is in the way they pronounce the words. There is just so much melody in the Scottish accent. To hear that melody back while singing, it is just a joy for the ears.
next up is Farewell To Charlemagne, the second song that has you stop in your tracks. It is a touching low whistle solo composed and played by Michael Horgan.. A touching, personal song about…. no, I shall not tell thee, in this case you have to look yourself into the track notes so the band themselves can tell you what it is about.
Track eight, The Cameronian Highlander is a well-known barn dance as specified in the track notes and it is indeed a mid-tempo dance tune played on accordion and flute. With a wee bit of imagination you can hear the clogs stamp on the wooden barn floor. But then the tempo speeds up considerably and the barn dance whirls into three reels, The Killavil Reel, The Bag of Spuds and The Carracastle Lass. All lovely uptempo folk tunes to cheer your heart and lift your feet. Irish folk music isn’t the most complicated style in the world, but played by gifted musicians, the instruments themselves start dancing, as if the notes themselves swirled around each other in variation after variation. Luckily Shantalla has such gifted musicians. So The Cameronian Highlander, again, is a joy to listen too.
THANK HEAVENS THEY INVENTED THE REPEAT BUTTONJamie Raeburn then shows the other side of folk music. Quite often they tell touching stories full of longing for a love once lost, grieving about a home now lost or telling about the hardship of life. Jamie Raeburn and the next song, Midlothian Mining Song, are no exception. And, as I already said Helen has the perfect voice to tell you those stories. You feel them when she sings. The delicate touch of Simon’s guitar compliments her voice perfectly. Just listen to this beautiful combination in Jamie Raeburn. The icing on the cake then comes from the touches of fiddle and viola and the subtle low whistle solo in Jamie Raeburn, or the lovely accordion, viola and flute melodies on Midlothian Mining Song.
Talking about lovely rhythm guitar, the first part of the last song on this album, Breaking Wind, has plenty of those. But it’s the touches of fiddle that make this song into something truly stunning. Almost classical in style, the fiddle sound gently slides into the music. It’s our last goosebump moment before Shantalla goes full out in this balfolk grand finale. A worthy end to this must have album, that finishes way too fast. Thank heavens they invented the repeat button. You’ll need it, you’ll need it a lot!
Editor: The ever so lovely Diane Deroubaix
Sleeve design: Robin Dekker
Studio Pictures: Shantalla
Live pictures: Kees Stravers