Release Date: 5th March 2016
‘The Ebony Trail’ is the debut album from Northern Irish songwriter Ciara O’Neill. Words like ethereal, haunting and melancholy will no doubt litter the lexicon of the lazy journalist when it comes to this release and yet while it’s all of these; it’s more and it’s none.
The title track squelches in with footsteps through some barren, muddied landscape. There’s an echo of what could be a banshee’s wail. There’s a feeling of some Hollywood depiction of impoverished rural Ireland. ‘The Ebony Trail’ sets the benchmark for the remainder of the record. While the track sounds desolate and cold, it’s rich with poetic imagery and lo-fi mystical musical fuzz.
Often straying in areas, other artists would lyrically never dare, on songs like ‘Dead, Black’ you feel that O’Neill gets what love is all about. Not that schmaltzy Valentine’s love but the true agony and anguish of a million feelings crying out for an outlet. This could grace the soundtrack of some beach scene on the latest Netflix post-hipster romantic comedy and yet could equally soundtrack the clawing at cellar walls of some nightmarish character in a flickering monochrome horror.
To dismiss this as another folk or “indie-folk” record is to do the work of the writer, the producer and the musicians a vast disservice. The music often juxtaposes the sweetness of that distinctive vocal. ‘Follow Me’ rolls snares like a military death march, ‘Invent Me’ reverberates like latter-day Death Cab For Cutie, ‘Primroses’ is back-room Tom Waits delivered in lullaby form and ‘Strange Day’ sounds like ‘Hunky Dory’ era Bowie.
On that note, I reminisce to a night six years ago when a younger Ciara O’Neill graced a small stage, bedecked in Bowie warpaint with her indie-pop band at the time. Here ‘Fortune Favours’ sounds the most like those younger, more carefree days. It’s accessible to the erstwhile folk fan with finger-picked guitar and touches of Laura Marling in the arrangement and delivery. Not quite a “song of the summer” but certainly a lighter moment on a record painted in shades of Edgar Allen Poe and incessant Irish weather.
The dystopian nightmare is played out to full effect on ‘For You’ where the acapella introit, in keeping with the Celtic sound of someone like Moya Brennan gives way to something more fitting of Sinead O’Conor. Paired with the 80s tones of an almost sordid sounding guitar, the song jars, intrigues, piques interest and you realise you’re coming out the other side of this journey.
Back on ‘The Road’, which closes this lavishly brooding record. There’s an air of the writings of Iain Archer in the opening lines. Indeed, later this year, Ciara O’Neill and Archer himself will appear on the PBS Network in the homes of 60 million Americans on ‘Music City Roots, Belfast To Nashville’.
It’s been Nashville, Tennessee where O’Neill has honed her craft over the last year and fittingly, she will host an album launch evening for ‘The Ebony Trail’ this Saturday 5th March 2016 in the Clayton Hotel, Belfast as part of the Panarts Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival. Expect intimacy, darkness, passion, intensity and to walk away with an appreciation of a songwriter who’s lent an angelic voice to the ways of the old folk murder-balladeer.