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Horslips - The Tain CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.16 | 63 ratings

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4 stars Irish five-piece band Horslips is one of the leading lights of Celtic rock with its fusion of original songs and traditional tunes. The band's second album, The Tain, was originally conceived as background music for a stage adaptation of Tain Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The Tain is central to a group of texts that make up the Ulster Cycle of legendary tales from early Irish literature. The story deals with the struggle between the armies of Connaught and Ulster for the possession of a prize bull. The album consists of fourteen fairly short tracks featuring an impressive array of traditional and electric instruments.

The album gets under way with the atmospheric Setanta. Setanta is the birth-name of the tale's hero, Cu Chulainn, who ultimately defeats his friend and foster-brother Ferdia in single combat. This opening instrumental piece comprises eerie sound effects and a guitar riff that are leitmotifs for the characters Setanta and Ferdia respectively. Maeve's Court is a more traditional type of instrumental featuring concertina, flute, acoustic guitar and bodhran. Maeve is the Connaught queen who wants the Ulster prize bull in order to outdo her husband. This is a very pleasant track and conjures up the image of the Connaught court wonderfully.

Track 3, Charolias, concerns the bull at the centre of the story. This is another fine track with fluttering flute and electric guitar duelling over melodic bass and solid drums. Vocals and organ then join in to produce that very characteristic Horslips sound. This leads in to The March, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. It's an instrumental in two parts and represents the march of the Connaught army to Cooley. The first part features snare-drum, flute, tin whistle and electric guitar; the rhythm changes in the second part with organ featured prominently.

You Can't Fool The Beast is a pleasant flute-led soft rock track with electric guitar and fiddle solos. It's a catchy song with sing-along chorus, not much else to say about it. The story continues with a supernatural figure warning Maeve of her army's forthcoming defeat at the hands of Dearg Doom (Cu Chulainn). This song is an in yer face rocker based on a traditional march. It features Jim Lockhart playing a solo on uillean pipes, and there's a short banjo and fiddle jig toward the end.

Ferdia's Song opens with the guitar riff leitmotif. This is a mid-tempo ballad featuring tin whistle and organ, along with superb fiddle and electric guitar interplay. The Ferdia motif lingers for the start of another instrumental, Gae Bolga, but is quickly overwhelmed by the Setanta motif. This track closes side one of the vinyl album and represents Ferdia's defeat at the hands of Setanta (Cu Chulainn). After three days of single combat, Cu Chulainn kills his close friend with his supernatural spear, Gae Bolga.

Side two and Cu Chulainn's Lament begins sparsely with voice and flute as the hero mourns his fallen friend. Fiddle and guitar join in, followed by flute and organ. Consumed with sadness Cu Chulainn resolves to give up the fight. Maeve's messenger carries news of the events in Faster Than The Hounds, as her army retires with the stolen bull. This song is nicely laid-back with jazz-toned organ, a fine John Fearn guitar solo and even a little jaws harp.

The Silver Spear concerns the Ulstermen arming themselves for the forthcoming chase. This track starts with acoustic guitar, drums, fiddle and piano playing a steady dance beat, before accordion, banjo and fiddle lead in to a jig typical of Newcastle band Lindisfarne. Track 12, More Than You Can Chew, is a rocker featuring uillean pipe and guitar solos. This song acts as both a rallying call for the men of Ulster, now with Cu Chulainn back at their head, and a warning to Maeve's army.

The Morrigan's Dream sees this supernatural figure, associated with war and death on the battlefield, foretelling Cu Chulainn of the outcome of the final battle. The track starts with snare-drum and bodhran, then acoustic guitar and fiddle enter. Some lovely organ embellishments provide a short interlude. The main tune then repeats with banjo and fiddle flourishes. This is based on a traditional dance tune, but it has a lovely Baroque feel to it. Quite exquisite. The Connaught army is overwhelmingly defeated in Time To Kill. This is a guitar rocker based on a jig, and there's also some Charles O'Connor mandolin and fiddle in here.

Although this is not the most complex of albums, the musicians are all highly accomplished and the variety of instrumentation adds interest and colour to the recording. The concept works well due to the story being grounded in Irish mythology and represented through traditional instruments and melodies. For that reason Horslips has always been an innovative and highly influential band. I personally do not go along with the Jethro Tull comparisons as Horslips' Irish roots give the band a very distinctive sound. I reckon The Tain is an excellent album, worthy of 4 stars.

seventhsojourn | 4/5 |


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