BLACKBIRD & CROW – Ailm (MIG MIG 01652)

AilmI don’t believe that anyone has coined a term for the music that Blackbird & Crow play. I’d like to suggest “gothic folk-rock”. Other artists have ventured down this road but I’d also like to suggest that Maighréad Ní Ghrásta and Stephen John Doohan do it best. Ailm is their second album – the title refers to a letter of the Ogham alphabet that signifies conifer which, in turn, is associated with healing.

The search for healing is at the centre of the album which combines Irish folklore and history, blues, psychedelia and Americana with an overpowering sense of mystery. The songs are populated with lost and broken characters, some of whom have found their way out of the darkness, some of whom are defiantly still there. In the modern world I’m pretty sure that ‘Parting Rag’ is about Shane MacGowan while ‘Margaret The Martyr’ takes us back to the era of the navvies, telling the story from the point of view of a wife left behind.

Maighréad’s powerful voice revels in its Irishness as do her lyrics. Stephen is a multi-instrumentalist: various stringed instruments plus harmonium and synth. In support they have cello, drums, uilleann pipes, trumpet and saxophone but it is the extraordinary arrangements, which I’m sure are down to Stephen, that dominate the sound.

The first two tracks, ‘Harlot On Holy Hill’ and ‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ run together and are firmly in the defiant camp. Everything, including Maighréad, is turned up to maximum and really rock you back on your heels. They are followed by the first of two covers, ‘Princess Of The Ditch’ by Kilkenny singer-songwriter Richie Healy. It’s a perfect match for Ailm. The other cover is Robbie Basho’s ‘Orphan’s Lament’.

There is so much power in this record and much beauty. There are some strange songs too: I’m still trying to work out ‘The Ways That I Can Make You Suffer’ but Ailm is already shaping up as one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: https://blackbirdandcrow.com/

‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ – live:

Irish duo Blackbird & Crow announce their second album

Blackbird & Crow
Photograph by Megan Doherty

The musical cosmos of Blackbird & Crow is almost infinite, ranging from soul, blues, psychedelic rock, from Americana to Irish Folklore. Maighread Ni Ghrasta and Stephen Doohan, two kindred spirits in music, come from County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. Discovered by Moya Brennan, singer and harpist of the Irish folk rock legend Clannad, they released their debut Shock Shatter Convince in 2017 and have played shows all over the UK, ROI and Germany. While deeply rooted in the musical tradition of their home country, Blackbird & Crow have always explored the trends of contemporary music.

Ailm is the second album of this extraordinary duo and the first on the German-based label M.I.G. Music. An impressive work by two exceptional musicians, showing a partly heavy, almost slightly disturbing, morbid beauty which is touching and sometimes even comforting. The songs are carried by Maighread‘s great nuanced vocal, with distinct Irish flair, and by the virtuosity of Stephen on the stringed instruments. The lyrics to their songs, almost all of which are written by Maighread, explore themes of addiction, suicidal thoughts, abuse, social alienation, anxieties, stories about lost souls on the fringes of society and the gloomy aspects of Celtic mythology. Ailm is a ruthlessly honest self-exploration, both harsh and beautiful, mainly from a first-person perspective, but often also in the third person, as for example in ‘Margaret The Martyr’, which is in its stark intensity reminds of Shel Silverstein‘s ‘Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’. Only that the protagonist here does not end up in a nuthouse, but vegetates in a nursing home, abandoned and lonely. A lot of personal experience finds its way into the lyrics, offering a pitiless view into the past, as well as their native Ireland.

While Blackbird & Crow impress audiences with their stage presence and unrestrained power, this record is dominated by the softer sounds and calls for close attention. With Tommy McLaughlin (Altan, Villagers) they found the right producer who helped them realise their musical ideas for the new album. Senior recording engineer Brian Masterson (Chieftains, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello) then gave Ailm its sonic finetuning.

“Ailm” is the Irish name of the twentieth letter of the Ogham alphabet; in the glossary “Tree Alphabet” “Ailm” represents the conifer. In the tree lore of Celtic mythology, the conifer stands for the healing of one‘s own soul. The “Ailm” symbol allegorizes progress, a spiritual journey. It is, however, also the symbol for healing, protection, purification, guidance, fertility, energy, clarity, health, integrity and objectivity. “We think that this word and symbol represents us and our songs very well“, says Maighread. “A conifer can brave very rough conditions and can grow anywhere. We‘ve been through a lot; many good things have happened to us, but also plenty of bad things. Ailm stands for our journey so far.“

Artists’ website: https://blackbirdandcrow.com/

‘Harlot On Holy Hill’ / ‘The Witch That Could Not Be Burned’ – official video: