Purists beware: Afro Celt Sound Syetem is neither purely African, whatever that means, nor “Celtic” in a way recognizable to someone from, say, a hundred years ago. Over the course of 15 years, this innovative group, built around the core quartet of Simon Emmerson (guitar), James McNally (accordion, whistle), Iarla O’Lionaird (vocals), and Martin Russell (keyboards and programming), has explored the boundaries and commonalities of two grand musical traditions. Electronica also features heavily, and guest stars show up on a regular basis, but it’s not Sinead O’Connor or Robert Plant who hold center stage here. Rather, the unlikely confluence of pipes and whistles, talking drums and kora is what commands the listener’s attention.
Capture is a two-disc retrospective, culling tracks from the band’s five albums, and is a fine place to start for anyone wishing to explore this innovative group of musicians. Those who already have the records will find this set redundant, as there are none of the perks—previously unreleased songs, demos, live tracks—common to such collections.
As mentioned above, this is not traditional music in the strict sense, although traditional tunes and instrumentation are incorporated early and often. There is a fair amount of synthesizer and drum machine in the mix as well, adding to the overall dance vibe.
What’s perhaps most astonishing is how seamlessly these elements are all synthesized. “Deep Channel” is one of many instrumental tacks that marries a gallopping dance beat with lilting pipes and a bouncing underpinning of West African talking drums. It sounds like it’ll be a mess, but it’s just the opposite. “Urban Aire/Big Cat” opens with a slow bagpipe air (which, to the, ahem, more rock-oriented among us, may suggest the opening strains of Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light,” complete with echoing reverb) before tripping into a frenetic synth-dance beat overlaid with rippling kora runs, pennywhistle, and chanted vocals. Afro vocals? Celt vocals? Who knows?
Fans of the film Gangs of New York might recognize the slow accordion-and-pipes shuffle of “Dark Moon” from that movie, while the irresistible “Seed” tosses in slide guitar and plenty of phase-shifting effects to counterbalance the whistles, pipes and West African singing.
The double-CD set is divided between instrumental numbers on the “Chorus” CD and songs with vocals on “Verse”. The instrumentals have plenty going on in them. With most topping six minutes, they need to. It might be the songs that grab most listeners’ ears, though. O’Connor’s whispery vocals on “Release” introduce a quietly urgent mood to the track’s bouncy rhythms, while Peter Gabriel’s turn on “When You’re Falling” lends a poppy, upbeat vibe to an already catchy song. Rwandan singer Dorothee Munyaneza, known for her work on the Hotel Rwanda soundtrack, lends her lovely, haunting voice to both “Mother” and “When I Still Needed You”. The latter song, an eight-plus minute epic that grows from a soft opening to an impassioned, percussion-heavy climax, is the final track on “Verse”, and a fitting conclusion to the collection.
There are other bands that have tried to marry Celtic and “world music” influences—Mouth Music and Green Man both come to mind—but Afro Celt Sound System are undeniably masters of the genre. This set, diverse and comprehensive as it is, comes as close as any collection to capturing the breadth of the band’s trailblazing output.