The Middle Kingdom
(Hammerheart, 2000)

I will be the first to admit that I requested to review Cruachan's The Middle Kingdom mainly out of curiosity -- what did heavy-metal Celtic music sound like, exactly? As I listened, I was intrigued and impressed both by the quality of the musicianship as well as the unique way the two disciplines of traditional Celtic music and storytelling was melded with heavy metal percussion and attitude.

Once one gets over the original shock of hearing what appeared to be a traditional dirge on the uilleann pipes break into a metal beat and rage onward, it all begins to make a lot more sense. One of the things I've always personally noticed about a great many Celtic songs of all traditions is that they contain their fare share of anger and confrontational attitude, especially embodied by the strong percussion of the bodhran on many a song. Cruachan simply made the shift to metal percussion and guitars to amplify that rage. In fact, the album made me wish I had more of a background in heavy metal so that I might make appropriate comparisons, but alas, I could not.

The hybrid that appears is varyingly successful -- sometimes it feels as if a traditional song were just given a metal beat without much attention to actually interweaving the traditions. Most often, however, the melodrama and in-your-face lyricism of metal is inextricably combined with traditional instruments and melodies of all kinds. The instruments are impressively varied and well played, moving through the introductory uilleann pipes in "A Celtic Mourning" through electric guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, bodhran, Irish flute, tin whistle and a variety of percussion. Each instrument is given a chance to shine as the music cycles through moments of harsh punk and the most traditional of flute solos.

"The Fianna" is particularly well done, bringing together all the traditions in a surprising number of ways while still following the main melody line. Karen Gilligan is the lead vocalist, and her voice manages to fit both the traditional moments just as finely as it does the metal moments. The expected bellowing one expects with heavy metal doesn't rear its head until the middle of the album, and by then it suits its situation.

"A Druid's Passing" is the most traditional track on the album, with nary a growl in sight, and it is in fact a haunting ballad. "Is Fuiar an Chroi," on the other hand, is immediately heavy metal and pretty much remains so throughout the song. I found myself more intrigued by those selections, including "The Fianna," the raucous "Cattle Raid of Cooley" and the vaguely reggae and punk "Unstabled," which truly combined the two ideas within one song.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend The Middle Kingdom to those listeners out there who prefer their music traditional, but for anyone who's adventurous and appreciates both the Chieftains and Nine Inch Nails, this album would be a fun and welcome addition to an eclectic collection.

[ by Robin Brenner ]
Rambles: 25 June 2001

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