Horslips is a rock group that has built a following in its own country (Ireland) and England through imaginative use of traditional Irish music in a rock setting. Their early records (available as imports) displayed a unique interpretive style in their clever use of traditional instruments such as the concertina, fiddle and Uilleannn pipes with the electric arsenal of rock's guitar, bass and drums. Centuries-old drinking songs, jigs and reels were revived as theme lines that became effective and imaginative rock music. The sound was, at once, immediate and ancient.
"Aliens" (DJL Records DJLPA-16), their newest record, is a departure from the tradition-based style which has proven such a creative success in the past. The immediacy of rock has become the primary element in Horslips' music and a comparison with the previously released "The Book of Invasions, A Celtic Symphony" (DJL Records DJLPA-10) reflects this new trend, in their musical thinking. The traditional themes and instruments that are central to "Book" have become, in "Aliens," superficial references that are of minor musical importance.
This apparent forsaking of their former style could be viewed as a natural extension of Horslips' music, but, in this case, it is an evolution of a very negative sort. The blandness of "Aliens" contrasts sharply with the power and character that is expressed in "The Book of Invasions."
"Book" is a musical setting, in three movements, of the story of the Tuatha de Danann, a tribe of ancient Irish sorcerers and warriors. Employing traditional themes as the basis for the music, Horslips transforms these into rock variations which present a contemporary reworking of Irish mythology.
The effectiveness of the record is largely due to the way in which these themes are interspersed with the rock music. The introduction is based on "Ta'na la" an Irish drinking song, that is first played by John Fean on guitar and is then augmented with Barry Devlin's electric bass and Eamon Carr's drums. Just as the song builds, it breaks into a march played by Jim Lockhart on flute and Charles O'Connor on electric mandolin that, in turn, becomes the first rock song. "Trouble With A Capital 'T'." The excitement of old music becoming new, and changing its character to suit the tenor of the present age, is irresistible.
This excitement is in contrast to the predictability of the rock-dominated "Aliens." Lacking the technical ability and purism of the Chieftains (the main practitioners of Irish music) and the showmanship of rock groups such as Led Zepplin, Horslips has depended on the imaginative reworking of these styles as the source of musical inspiration. By ignoring this strength and disturbing the unique balance of styles that they have created, their weaknesses at those specific styles are emphasized.
The main weakness with "Aliens" is that Horslips, as a rock group, is not particularly exceptional. The use of traditional elements is so limited that, as opposed to sounding unique, Horslips, at times, resembles nothing more than a meek version of Jethro Tull. This is most obvious with songs such as "Sure The Boy Was Green" in which a tongued flute line follows the guitar in a manner that has become tiresome even in the case of Tull's Ian Anderson, who patented the style nine years ago.
The notable exception in the rock barrage is "Exiles," which sounds vaguely like Horslip's former style of composition and playing. A theme (based on a traditional melody?) is played by the guitar and a series of variations are then played by a tin whistle. The piece, while lacking the ambition and imagination of earlier works, is an evocative instrumental that implies that Horslips' creative ability might not be a thing of the past.
Horslips will be appearing at the Cellar Door this Friday and Saturday night. Live performances are always the truest barometer of musicians' talent and musical commitment, and perhaps Horslips will return to their traditional style. On the evidence of "Aliens," however, this return is not likely. Horslips was once an Irish-rock group. It is fast becoming a rock group from Ireland.