Avenging & Bright | Damien O'Kane : Damien O'Kane

DAMIEN O'KANE

Avenging & Bright

Sunday Express

★★★★★

‘Album of the Week’

DAMIEN O’KANE: AVENGING & BRIGHT (PURE RECORDS)

O’Kane’s second album, Areas of High Traffic, marked out his uncanny ability to marry traditional folk rhythms and cadences with modern instrumentation. But Avenging & Bright, its words taken from the 19th-century Irish Poet Thomas Moore, brings a low-key, shimmering intensity to proceedings that take it into a different league. There are tunes here (Boston City, January Man), which bring out goosebumps, O’Kane’s beautifully low-key delivery tracing quietly melodic patterns across a lush network of everything from keyboards, guitar and banjo to, according to the sleeve note, a toaster and Pyrex dish! A duet with his wife, the terrific folk singer Kate Rusby, on her own composition Lately, adds a superb final touch.

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Northern Sky Magazine

DAMIEN O’KANE: AVENGING & BRIGHT (PURE RECORDS)

Following on from 2015’s hugely successful AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC, Damien O’Kane returns with his much anticipated third solo offering AVENGING AND BRIGHT. The artwork on the new album suggests a continuation of the sartorial theme that adorned the cover of his previous album, with the then sharp suited and close barbered O’Kane now more sworded, bearded and booted and with an appearance not unlike a lead character from Game of Thrones. The theme of the artwork is inspired by the title song of the album Avenging and Bright, Thomas Moore’s 19th Century poem based on the story ‘The Three Sons of Usnach’.

Hard to believe it’s been seven years since the first solo outing SUMMER HILL but throughout the course of the three albums, the basic formula of traditional and contemporary songs reinterpreted in new and musically exciting settings has understandably remained unchanged. O’Kane’s  refreshingly unique style and his ability to reinvent great folk songs with pin sharp production and stellar musicianship reaches even greater heights on Avenging and Bright, and this is most certainly not a slow-burner album.

From the opening track Boston City through to the infectious self-penned instrumental Dancing in Puddles the music draws up an eclectic canvas of sounds and themes that are immediately accessible and sufficiently varied in structure and depth to keep you hooked. The engine room of the Damien O’Kane band comprises of the ever present Steven Byrnes and Steven Iveson on guitars, Josh Clarke on percussion and Anthony Davis on keyboards. Separate guest appearances by the banjo master that is Ron Block (Alison Krauss band) and the lady of the house Kate Rusby provide some lovely embellishments to the songs Boston City and Lately respectively, with Ron popping in again for a duet with Damien on Dancing in Puddles.

Production wise, the album is a far from being a raw and sparse offering to the point of possessing an almost clinical sound. But I ask you, has there ever been a Pure Records release that has suffered from poor production, of course not and this album is definitely no exception with a weak track not anywhere to be found. Avenging and Bright is a truly accomplished album that puts the top hat on a creatively exhausting year for Damien O’Kane that also saw him take in an extensive spring and summer tour schedule with his band, as well as completing work on two the Kate Rusby albums of the past twelve months and not forgetting the now customary Christmas tour schedule. Not bad for a wee lad with a banjo from Coleraine. 

Phil Carter
Northern Sky

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LOUDER THAN WAR

8/10

Just over two years since the release of the startling contemporary folk of Areas Of High Traffic, Damien O’Kane and his crack, well-oiled band are back , avenging and bright, with an album that once again dares to challenge any preconceptions of folk music.

Damien O’Kane is a musician who’s well versed in the tradition yet the twinkle in his Irish eyes tells you to be on yer toes. While Areas Of High Traffic might have been an album that threw a spanner in the folk works – the unexpectedly huge swing from what the folk world expected from an acclaimed banjo maestro – it’s daring sonic explorations gave a hint, a pre-warning, to expect the unexpected.

Hence, there’s an uncertainty at how he might follow Areas… As they used to say in Thunderbirds, “anything could happen (in the next half hour)” with the caveat that it probably will. For a start, there’s the cover that shows Damien boldly playing the role of the gallant hero knight in bird crested fur robes, shield and sword by his side; ready to head into battle to uphold his beliefs. Or maybe he just likes dressing up, as several very convincing appearances as Mary in the nativity encore of Kate Rusby’s current Christmas tour will testify.

An indication of the contents maybe? Armed and ready, he’s flanked by his guard, his merry men, his boys: Steven Iveson the sonic architect whose electric guitar has decorated the O’Kane and Rusby live and studio bands in the past as has Stevie Byrnes; the perfect foil, switching between acoustic instruments to complement with a rare empathy. And then there’s Anthony Davies summoning up very un-folky swathes of keyboard nuances. The O’Kane/Davies/Byrnes/Iveson line up certainly make a formidable five-a-side team with Josh Clark stepping up on drums, percussion and assorted kitchen implements (probably something like Stewart Copeland tapping out a rhythm on a rocket on Walking On The Moon).

Beneath the robes, we can only guess, yet what Avenging & Bright does is further reinforce his capacity and his reputation as a tunesmith. Irish sources play a major role, while once again, the overarching musical vibe is about expanding the contemporary approach. Setting the tone with Boston City which flows along on a mellow groove before being ambushed and driven by a raging banjo fire, Poor Stranger similarly revisits some of the sonic lushness from Areas… The Irish origins of the opening volley all come flavoured with the O’Kane touch as the lyrical themes of the quest for liberty and freedom come to a head in the title track.

The double electric tenor guitar with Stevie Byrnes on Lately, donated by Kate Rusby, carries a gentle rolling song that muses over the passage of time, completed with a distant breathy Rusby backing vocal before a run of covers that include Elizabeth Stirling’s All Among The Barley and January Man by Dave Goulder. However, it’s Sean McBride’s The Homes Of Donegal though that emerges as a choice pick, carried by a passion and a deep sentiment.

No Damien O’Kane album would be complete without a couple of tunes – the traditional Castle Kelly’s and the original Dancing In Puddles come from different inspirations, the latter featuring the amazing Ron Block and a more lilting tune you’re unlikely to hear. Measured and reassuring it’s another fine example of taking the tenor guitar and tenor banjo in a different direction. Duelling banjos but with a twist. A tune that endorses the view on Avenging & Bright, it’s hard to imagine we’re working with traditional folk songs here. What someone might call folk Jim, but not as we know it. Not quite a walk on the wild side, but certainly out there.

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Get Ready To Rock

★★★★

Damien O’Kane’s album ‘Areas Of High Traffic’, released last year, was nominated for ‘Album Of The Year’ at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Based on this new album that is hardly surprising as in the main he takes traditional folk songs and adds his own, modern musical spin on them. The sound is not traditional folk, as guitars are the main instruments used, along with the synths/keyboards playing of Anthony Davis, which really adds a modern sound to the songs.

There is so much to savour and enjoy on this album, with highlights including the beautiful ‘Lately’, written by his wife Kate Rusby, who also joins him on the song. The instrumental ‘Dancing In Puddles’ features Ron Block guesting on banjo – a tune written for his daughter Daisy. Damien O’Kane has a wonderfully soothing vocal that really gives expression to the traditional Irish tunes like ‘The Homes Of Donegal’.

‘January Man’ is the real stand out, not only for the lyric (this song has been covered by Christy Moore amongst others), but the music with the synths/keys adding an almost prog rock feel to the proceedings. The guitar playing is stunning, hats off to Steven Byrnes and Steve Iveson, plus Damien, for this. Indeed if you enjoy Big Big Train there is much on this album that you’d enjoy.

Thoroughly enjoyable album from start to finish, cleverly mixing folk, a little prog and electronic music to great effect.

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