Joshua Burnside - Late Afternoon in the Meadow (1887) 1

Joshua Burnside – Late Afternoon in the Meadow (1887)

Experimental folk singer songwriter  Joshua Burnside  has just released the EP ‘Late Afternoon In The Meadow (1887)‘ Taking influences from Irish trad, electronica and alternative music he snips and weaves the genres with a mixture of ancient found sounds, world music and innovative production methods ahead of his biggest homecoming headline show to date; the Ulster Hall, Belfast on December 23rd. 

Boundary pushing folk music seems to be having a renaissance lately, drawing on ancient Celtic traditions yet surging forwards, with bands like Lankum toppling the boundaries over all together, reinventing the genre and winning the RTÉ Choice Music Prize Irish Album of the Year whilst bursting into the mainstream consciousness. Similarly, Tom Coll, drummer from Fontaines DC released Goitse A Thaisce (A Compilation of Irish Music – Volume One) celebrating the genre via his own independent label Skinty Records, while Folk Punks The Mary Wallopers are on an upward trajectory after amassing a huge live following ahead of their debut together with metal/ folk outfit The Scratch, who even played the Barbican Centre London as well as selling out 3Olympia Theatre Dublin. Burnside himself won the ‘Best Album’ award at the NI Music Prize in 2017 and has been heavily featured on BBC Radio 6, BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 2 and KEXP.

Unlike the trad fused punk vibes of the Scratch and the Mary Wallopers, Burnside’s latest EP is more akin to Lankum with a more reflective and introspective vibe, expertly picking from a palette of world music, electronica, Irish trad and ancient found sounds to layer and create his soundscape with depth and mythical lyrics imbued with contemporary and urban landscapes.

There is something about the polyphonic texture of the drones of the Ullian pipes and deep vocal harmonies in the music that can be felt on a visceral level. Bands like Lankum use both the Irish Ullian pipes and Delhi harmonium to create warm, thick buzzing walls of exquisite noise, while Burnside uses the vocals, pipes and fiddles, layered with discordant found sounds to penetrate the subconscious. The fact that the droning resonance of such instruments create such similar soundscapes from Ireland to India tells us a lot about the universal human condition. Lou Reed also understood the power of drones in his divisive Metal Machine Music LP, inspired by La Monte Young. He made incredible use of drones using electric guitars and after his death his wife, artist and Grammy winning singer and multi media artist Laurie Anderson created a sonic art Installation using the reverb from his guitars called ‘Lou Reed Drones.’ It was a life changing experience where attendees were presented with ear plugs on the way in, enabling participants to listen with more than their ears; experiencing the reverbed vibrations from his guitars with senses that you never even knew you had. The deep harmonic ancient polyphonic buzz in Josh Burnside’s EP, particularly in the opening track ‘Woven’ have a similar intense effect, boring deep into your soul, rather than just through your headphones.

‘Woven‘ opens with distorted voices in the distance like when you are in a half dream half waking state with an elderly voice saying ‘ the person who didn’t care was probably making it up” The sound of discordant fiddles tuning up in the distance reminds me of being a child half asleep on a pile of coats at an Irish hooley, hearing the voices in the distance. Suddenly you open your eyes and you hear it in focus- that multi sensory vocal, fiddle and pipe droning. There is a grit, yet beauty and poetry to the lyrics when he speaks of wanting to roll up the dark thread woven in their head “For a Kitten to play with” taking something dark and making it warm and manageable. That juxtaposition of harshness and beauty is there within the mythical imagery of the Greek God Kronos saying, ” Kronos/ I would eat you up/ You’d live inside me/ Keep you warm/ Safe/ Like a baby / Never born/ never dies‘ – a smothering kind of warmth. He says, “I wanna pull you out/ Of this well/ So damn dark and deep/And wrap you in a tinfoil sheet” beautifully illustrating the hope that exists even in the darkest times- mixing the ancient and the mythical with the modern. I think that it was no coincidence that folk genres, like sea shanties were what people craved and were drawn to online during the pandemic. There is something safe and grounding about going back to our roots.

The titular track, ‘Late Afternoon in the Medow‘ takes on that melismatic Sean-nós singing style. Burnside uses the Irish traditional  neá, effect which Sean-nós stalwart  Seosamh Ó hÉanaí   said provided a quiet nasal drone in his head and represented “the sound of a thousand Irish pipers all through history.” Similarly, musician and academic Tomás Ó Canainn  said, ” no aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of Sean-nós singing. It is the key which opens every lock.” This applies to Burnside, who faithfully uses these traditions, yet unlocks new and innovative. doors with them.

This song is a lament, traditional to Sean-nós, but he is placing it withing an urban landscape. It speaks of a man wishing to take his life off the West Link bridge, with lyrics like, “My life is something that’s just been happening to me.” This track was described as ” the story of a life without opportunity, following a character lost in the labyrinth cul-de-sacs of working-class Belfast, caught between mountain and motorway.  The motorway in question is the Westlink, a ‘river of concrete that is as much a barrier to progress and movement for the citizens of Belfast as the peace walls. A solid, grey, sheer monument to the division found in the city”… The track captures the beauty and turmoil of the songwriter’s home.  Burnside said,

Belfast was redesigned for military, social and economic reasons during the late end of the century. It was rebuilt to suit a car-driving suburban middle class, which is why the centre is mostly encircled motorways twisting and rising above or below you.

It is sadly apt then, that people wishing to take their own life, often choose the Westlink as the place to do it, jumping from the bridges that cross it. This song is about someone at the end of their tether. And if you are feeling this way, then I dedicate this song to you. ”  He continues.

I wrote this one after returning from the south of France. I’m normally glad to be home, but it was a particularly grey and blustery day….so I wrote a very bleak song. But there is hope in it too, hope for a kinder society, a life that is softer on the soul. Belfast seldom resembles a French impressionist painting, but it is my home and it has its own beauty.“ -  He is right; there is strength in beauty in this track and hidden in all the landscapes both urban and rural- that is for sure. The title of the track echos Camille Passario’s ‘ Late afternoon in Our Medow 1887’ painting. Passario used stippling techniques, which reflects Burnsides, stippling of genres and soundscapes, juxtaposing musical colours together to create an even more evocative soundscape.

Track three, Louis Mercier initially sounds like it is a more upbeat track with the forging melody, however if you look a bit deeper, like you do with a Pisarrio painting there are more layers. It feels like it is inspired by his time in France with accordion, drums, horns and allusions to war and “Louis Mercier/ Our young legionnaire/With the wind in his hair/And the tricolour flying’ and speaking about the “diamonds tea and tin” mentioning the ‘Greed of man’ and “iron coal steel and cotton” which “The teachers happily forgot” he laughs, perhaps alluding to colonialism. Much of this dark history is whitewashed out of education. It is apt that he layers the serious messages about colonialism over an upbeat track with upbeat delivery. The juxtaposition is incredibly effective, perhaps illustrating the more positive tales of victory that are told at school rather than the darker parts that are omitted.

‘Rough Edges’ takes in the dynamics of a relationship in crisis. It’s a microcosm of Burnside’s earlier career work, focussing on the same slow-building crescendo of artists such as Elliot Smith. The track pitches and boils, substituting instrumentation for swirling vocals double-tracks and percussion for high-strung acoustics. Lyrically, ‘Rough Edges’ conjures very specific yet universal images and scenarios expressed via an arrangement of acoustic fingerpicking, subtle synths and hypnotic melodies. An intimate yet universal track that revels in exposing and irritating the raw nerves at the heart of a deafening silence, ‘Rough Edges’ ends ambiguously, expressing zero comfort or resolution for both song listeners and subjects. Burnside said,

I actually began writing this song many years ago, but some songs just need a little more time than others.. It is a straightforward sort of song, about a relationship in turmoil, and of the transient nature of love without trust and compromise.

Final track, ‘Where White Lillies Bloom’ is my favourite musical track on the EP, painting Sliabh Luachra style fiddles over the darker drones and strings. It’s beautiful; layering the instruments Comhaltas style in gentle peaks and troughs echoing the Northern Irish rural landscapes. Many of Burnside’s songs feel like they have always existed and that, in itself is an act of genius. I think this EP is a grower. Look beyond the surface and you will see hidden depths, like you would in a Passario painting- then the wonders of the creation will come to the fore.

This is an EP full of depth, polyphonic layers, melismatic vocals, poetry, grit and enduring hope. It meets the listeners in the darkness and guides them into the light. Burnside links the past and present with expertise and authenticity. He is the future of folk.

See Josua Burnside Play at the Ulster Hall in Belfast on December 23rd 2022 with support from Lemoncello.

Joshua Burnside – Live at The Ulster Hall, Belfast, December 23rd 2022

and order his EP here:

Joshua Burnside – UK Tour | Twitter, Instagram, Facebook | Linktree


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