A brutal beauty
The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock’s second album is bold, relevant and defiantly modern, writes Jim Carroll
IT’S THE BOLDNESS of The Brutal Here & Now that will turn your head. The second album from The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock offers a striking sound and vision. A lot of acts talk about heading for the higher ground and following their own star, but very few actually do it. Better to follow in the slipstream of others than blaze your own trail.
Allen Blighe will forgive us when we say that he doesn’t quite look like a trailblazer. A quiet, bespectacled lad sitting in a corner of a deserted Dublin city-centre hotel on a weekday lunchtime, Blighe is the lyricist, vocalist and founder of the band who take their name from an Arthur Griffith poem. But it’s the quiet ones you have to keep an eye on and Blighe and his bandmates have pulled off quite a feat with their new album. While they started their engines with considerable confidence on their 2008 self-titled debut, the magnificent musical thump and intriguing lyrical explorations on The Brutal Here & Now leave that work in the ha’penny place. An album that explores memory and history in swathes of rock, trad and electronic swirls, it unfolds in dramatic, spectacular fashion.
It was partly the demise of Blighe’s former band which lead him down the trad path. “Holy Ghost Fathers just ran out of steam due to babies, marriage, work, houses and travel, the usual stuff,” he explains. At the time, I was getting into Irish folk and there were a couple of key things that set me off thinking about folk music. I knew for sure that I wanted to do something that fused that folk music with more modern rock music, but that was as far as the plan went.”
He wasn’t the first to have this notion and admits some of the prior juxtapositions may have queered the pitch a little. “It’s a very difficult line to walk and some bands succeed better than others. We’ve seen a lot of Celtic rock bands coming from Europe with ideas of mythicism and a hippie feel to them and that wasn’t our thing at all. We wanted to do something quite modern rather than a nostalgia trip.”
From songs in Italian (a nod to Blighe’s wife’s roots) and Irish and references to Oliver Cromwell and Roger Casement, The Brutal Here & Now is a much more advanced, complex and accomplished work.
For Blighe the lyricist, it was a chance to explore how memory plays tricks with and often rewrites history. “The idea that really stuck with me when I was writing the songs was how memory and history are interlinked and how critical history and memory are at this time with what the country is going through. The Cromwellian period, for instance, is a very interesting period because it was the beginning of the end of the Irish language in popular culture and it saw so much forced migration. That’s something I reference when I talk about how sometimes you have to forget to move on.”
The problems with collective memory about past events are also relevant to this country’s more recent history.
“I see a real denial of what has happened here,” says Blighe. “You can say that events will always be repeated, regardless of whether people remember what happened or not, but you’ve got to try to remember. That trend of trying to move on and gloss over things is very corporate. I’ve worked in a corporate environment for a long time and you see it again and again. It’s not good, it’s not a real way to move on.”
It’s also nothing new. “I remember a very interesting idea from that BBC Folk Hibernia documentary about how, in the context of the Irish folk revival, if the politics of the day raised awkward questions that there was a sense of looking inward and down to avoid the bigger questions,” says Blighe. “It has its negative sides and folk singers need to see the whole picture and not just sing about myths and legends.”
This, you could say, also applies to Blighe’s peers in Irish bands today who seem reluctant to address the issues of the day. “I don’t understand why other acts haven’t commented on what’s happened in the country. It’s an intimidating issue so perhaps people are confused and disorientated by what is going on. Maybe it’s a case that people are still so far behind in trying to process what has happened.
“Maybe it’s still a denial stage or shock. Recently, though, with the opposition to the property tax and water charges, there’s a sense that there’s a lot of real anger out there which is only beginning to come to the surface. Maybe there’s more on the way, but the lack of commentary is very odd.” As a lyricist, Blighe also decided to try writing in Irish and Italian.
“It’s a whole different spectrum of sounds and words to grapple with,” he says. “Writing in Irish, there were a couple of good poetry books and dictionaries which I was referencing and I got some advice and grammatical corrections from Gaeligeors such as Jim Hoey. But mostly, it was me looking through those books and tearing my hair out. I’d love to improve my Irish, just as much as I’d like to improve my Italian.”
Blighe has also been exploring Italy’s native sounds with great interest. “A lot of English-language music journalism is focused on British and American bands. You get this AngloAmerican perspective as a result, which is often disdainful of everything else, but that shouldn’t be the case at all. From travelling around Italy and hanging around record shops, I’ve come across great contemporary music and amazing experimental stuff from the 1970s that you’d never come across outside of the country. In Ireland, it’s probably the exact same.”