Altan: The First Ten Years 1986 / 1995

Published: Mojo, August 1995

Ceol Aduaigh – ‘Northern Music’ – was the title of the first record, in 1983, by Frankie Kennedy and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh – a couple of young teaching graduates, from Belfast and Gaoth Dobhar, who played traditional music for fun. The next one, released on Green Linnet in 1987, was titled Altan, after a lough in Donegal, and gave rise to the band of that name. The pair took a career break and took their new band on the road, taking it all the way by stealth and old fashioned musical excellence to the top of critics’ polls and specialist album charts the world over.

Late last year Kennedy died after a long struggle with cancer and this album – the group’s first compilation – is both a tribute and a stopgap. Compiled and remixed by Donal Lunny, using material from all five albums since Altan, the message and the presentation is both simple and effective. Just as the group, under Kennedy’s tutelege, succeeded in carving their niche in a late 20th century marketplace with an undiluted musical vision and clear, honest marketing based on not fixing something essentially unbroken by the waves of time, so it is with The First Ten Years: no live tracks, no left-overs, no nonsense. Nothing, in effect, that takes away from the streamlined essence of the group from day one.

By coincidence or design, Lunny has selected tracks that more or less mirror Altan’s live repertoire from the past eighteen months, certainly since the release of last year’s universally lauded Island Angel. In that sense as much as any other, the record must be seen as a watershed. It is a record not intended as an equally weighted sampler from previous work, but more as a presentation of the here and now. Thus, we get five tracks from Island Angel and only one from 1989’s Horse With A Heart. It’s an approach that works well in this context and, one would imagine, likewise in nudging the group forward in terms of its personnel and stage material. With music so seamless and, by turns, both mesmerising and rich in dynamics, hearing five so recent tracks again in this altered setting is simply, to coin the old Zeppelin Remasters adage, ‘new light through old windows’. Ironically, perhaps deliberately, ‘An Feochan’, that sole survivor from 1989, is the most touching moment within – a sparse, meandering air from Kennedy on flute and on his own, right in the middle of the running order and reminding anyone in doubt that here indeed was a major talent who, in a musical sense, was more content to drive his vehicle carefully from the wheel than perch on the bonnet and gesture at pedestrians. Here, on one record, is what all the fuss was about: northern music, with no politics and no religion, but a sense of timeless romanticism for the whole island of Ireland to share with the world.

Colin Harper