Fidil’s arrangements stand out on their latest album.
By Daniel Neely
This week I’ve been listening to “Decade,” the fabulous new album from the group Fidil, and I have to say it’s an impressive effort that traditional music lovers will want to hear. Fidil’s sound is fairly unique, as the music Aidan O’Donnell, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, and Damien McGeehan make together is entirely fiddle-based. But what they’re able to do with this seemingly limited palette is incredible. There’s variety, invention and a daring in their approach that celebrates their shared Donegal heritage in the most interesting of ways. For folks who enjoy top-tier traditional music that embraces innovation, “Decade” is an album not to be missed.
The group has been around for just over a decade and in that time have really refined their noteworthy approach. Things began auspiciously in 2008, when Ó Maonaigh & O’Donnell released an album they called “Fidil.” At the launch they invited McGeehan to join them, and the bond was immediate. As they got to better understand each other’s music, the creativity began to flow. They released “3,” the group’s debut, in 2009, and “The Old Wheel of Fortune” in 2011. Both were met with critical acclaim.
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The group’s members will likely be familiar to regular readers. Ó Maonaigh, who was TG4’s “Young Musician of the Year” in 2003, is a member of the group “The High Seas” with Cathal Ó Curráin and Caitlín Nic Gabhann, his wife, with whom he has also recorded “Caitlín & Ciarán.” McGeehan (www.damienmcgeehan.com) is a top player whose album “The Tin Fiddle” was one of the best releases of 2017. O’Donnell is also a stellar young player and was TG4’s Young Musician of the Year in 2010. Each is hard wired in Donegal’s fiddling tradition.
There is a lot going on this album musically. While tunes from Donegal’s fiddle repertoire comprise much of the album’s content (and underscore the influence of Scottish music), O’Donnell, Ó Maonaigh, and McGeehan have also included several of their own original compositions. But my overall first impression has to do with the sense of drive the players bring to the music. It’s established on the first track “The Pinch Of Snuff / …” and renewed on tracks like “The Fantastic Reel / …,” “The Hurricane /…,” and “Blest Among Women / ….” The playing on these tracks is extraordinary (especially on “Hurricane”), putting the great creativity of the players on full display.
But on repeat listenings, the arrangements are what really begin to stand out. The highlands “The Earl Of Dalkieth / Árd Na dTaibhsí” are a perfect example. While the tunes themselves are really cool, it’s the musical interplay between the fiddles – the layering, the rhythmic gestures, the conversation the three musicians are having – that makes things memorable.
This notion is reinforced in the two so-called (and aptly put) “descriptive pieces” included here. One, “Na Farraigí Dearga – The Seas They Ran Red With Blood,” is a composition of Ó Maonaigh’s, while the other, “An Chéad Chathlán” (which is coupled with “The Teelin Highland”), is by McGeehan. They’re not really dance tunes as they unfold in a manner that seems to tell a story. But the inventive way the musicians articulate with each other allows them to do this convincingly. (The use of the tin fiddle on both adds a really interesting nuance.) They’re both great tracks that contrast the approach elsewhere.
And what “Donegal” album would be complete without a few mazurkas, right? There are a few here including “The First Draft” (by Siobhán Peoples) and “The Girl From Mín A’ Draighin / The Wolcott Lass” (both by McGeehan). While I could very easily sing the praises of the playing here (and the playing is absolutely top rate), I am again really more impressed with the arrangements. The Peoples’s tune is simply lovely, but Fidil’s treatment gives it this kind of faraway, glassy feeling that feels very soulful. I absolutely love how they’ve worked out “The Girl From….” It opens with a fabulous pizzicato arrangement, before taking to the bows, with the tin fiddle again adding a brilliant timbral element to the overall sound. It’s an outstanding track.
“Decade” is a great album that flashes stunning artistry while at the same time celebrating the group’s Donegal heritage. This one’s for lovers of Donegal music, fiddle music, and folks who dig innovative traditional music done in a way that doesn’t make the old stuff sound too new. You can sample select tracks and purchase through Raelach Records’s Bandcamp page, raelachrecords.bandcamp.com.