Ballycotton,
Mondland
(Mecki, 2003)

If one doesn't think of Austria as a place where folk-revival performers thrive, that may be because Austria itself doesn't often enter into the consciousness of us self-absorbed Americans. When it does come up, it's typically in some negative context, having to do with memories hanging over from World War II, during which Austria was very much on the wrong side. Then many years later, to compound that unhappy fact, Austrian Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary General and arguably the world's most prominent Austrian, was exposed as a Nazi war criminal.

That, of course, is far from all there is to say about Austria and its people, the bulk of whom are as guiltless and decently intentioned as the rest of us. On the positive side of the ledger, attesting to contemporary Austria's cultural vibrancy, is an acoustic group of young, talented performers with interesting ideas. Its name (taken from an Irish coastal village) notwithstanding, Ballycotton is a folk band from Austria -- although not, it must be stressed, an Austrian folk band. Transcending national, though not continental, borders, it fashions a pan-European sound not quite like any other that I've heard. If a comparable ensemble exists, it is not known to me -- which may not mean all that much, since my knowledge of European roots music outside the British Isles and Scandinavia is less than extensive.

Ballycotton prefers to call what it does "modern folk music" as opposed to "world music." More often than not, the latter is ethno-music with an ever more pronounced Western-pop sheen, whereas Ballycotton's music begins in the neo-traditional, quasi-orchestral approach brought to life in the 1970s Celtic revival. The band then throws into the mix elements of French, Spanish, German, Russian and even Middle Eastern sounds, along with unintrusive jazz and classical flourishes.

The resulting fusion never sounds forced, at least to my ears. It suggests, generally, what the Chieftains might have created if they had expanded beyond purely Celtic traditions and mostly traditional music. (By which I do not mean to imply that Ballycotton is superior, or even equal, to the Chieftains. Nobody is.) Though influenced by older musics, Ballycotton writes all its own material. I for one would like to hear the band take on actual, as opposed to "modern," folk tunes for at least one album. Still, the compositions on Mondland are sturdy and pleasurable, and they betray no new-age touches worth grousing about.

There are vocals of a sort, but this is to all intents and purposes an instrumental recording. The voices are not used so much to sing songs as to provide aural texture. In less capable throats, that could amount to barely human elevator harmonies, but that is not what we get here. The voices glide in, under, and over the instruments with assurance, grace and feeling.

This is a better album than I grasped on first, casual listening. I suspect you may have the same initial impression, and the same second one. You may agree with me, too, that Ballycotton deserves good fortune and an honored place on the international folk scene.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 29 November 2003

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