Laid out in front of us, at first glance the signifiers of traditional folk are seemingly in order, as the smiling Irish five-piece settle onto the stage: uilleann pipes and acoustic guitar, bookending concertina, harmonium and fiddle, the prettiness of female vocals – with a finger in the ear for intonation – and generous mention of drink and boats: surely a fair isle sweater will make an appearance?
But the packed Queen’s Hall Festival audience who give Dublin band Lankum a warm and fulsome welcome know much better than me what to expect, and within the space opened up by the disorientating opening bars of first song The Wild Rover you can jalouse the Dante-esque direction this is all heading.
Hypnotic and eerie, with Radie Peat’s vocals hovering over a droning axis, and ethereal chorus harmonies, we travel for ten minutes across a beautiful and mournful landscape, with thunderous clouds ever-approaching – a mind’s-eye image reinforced by the ominous crack of the kettle drum played by Jon MacDiarmada – it fairly does the job.
The song, from the band’s 2019 breakthrough album The Livelong Day, gives way to two numbers from the band’s recently-released False Lankum album: the relatively jaunty The New York Trader, sung by pipe player Ian Lynch, and another drone-centred lament, Go Dig My Grave. All this cementing the fear-of-God that pervades throughout, proving Lankum’s preoccupation with intensity – even in the more energetic jig-style numbers, the gothic imagery rarely lets up, even sweetened by Peat’s voice, or Ian and brother Daragh Lynch’s voices, which ring beautifully in unison.
It’s all the more sonically engaging, though, as the band has mastered the power of electronic atmospheres and textures, frequently-employed on mellotron, synthesiser and sampling, which, along with Peat’s bass pedal, drag us inwards and down to a claustrophobic place, like following an overpowering and intoxicating perfume, at times nearing terrifying, over the course of many minutes.
This dimension seems to be what gives Lankum their edge – ‘folk’ for folk who know their Thom Yorke, Mogwai or My Bloody Valentine, and like a good dose of grim distortion, literally in the mix, turned up to 11. While some of the more delicate atmospheres recall the work of Can‘s Holger Czukay, the heavier fuzz-textures reminded me of MBV’s Kevin Shields. No electric guitars are employed, though at one point guitarist Daragh Lynch sets to work sawing-away on his acoustic for several minutes with a violin bow, with viola-player Cormac MacDiarmada coaxing guttural rumblings and wailings from his instrument – all gloriously unsettling.
In contrast to the songs’ serious-mindedness, the inter-song craic is relaxed and humorous, the Lynch brothers sparring with each other and the audience, with the smiling Peat chipping-in. Her airy vocals lend an enchantment especially to the ballads she fronts, but add a counterbalancing harmony to the forlorn, world-weary On a Monday Morning.
The window-rattling final song of Bear Creek possibly embodies the band’s best qualities, slowly building from a languorous subtly-shifting dreamscape into a propulsive, melodic jig motif that repeats with ever-increasing force until becoming an unstoppable freight-train of whirling sufi-like power, rivalling the best of folk kings such as Capercaillie from these shores, or Moving Hearts, from theirs. After the show is over, you can feel the energy you carry away with you onto South Clerk Street.