There is no shortage of great music being released by musicians and bands from across Northern Ireland and that is evident in the list of shortlisted albums for the Northern Ireland Music Prize. Amongst the twelve albums shortlisted there’s well crafted concepts and moods, undoubted creativity and a raft of just great songs. There are impressive debuts, successful sophomores, and a few seasoned artists across a spectrum on genres. We know that the judges will have a difficult decision on their hands but all you need to do is sit back and let us introduce you to the lucky musicians competing for the award.
Arborist – Home Burial
Centred around the impressive songwriting Mark McCambridge, the Belfast based band found themselves receiving a fair bit of acclaim once their debut Home Burial was released last year. McCambridge’s craftsmanship and knack for captivating storytelling is matched by the layered mix of folk sounds behind his deep vocals. There are plenty of quieter moments on offer including ‘Twisted Arrow’, with guest vocals from Kim Deal. Yes, that Kim Deal. The centre piece ‘A Man of My Age’, a jaunty six minute plus number telling tales of the ailments of ageing and artistic frustration. Folk from these shores has rarely sounded as good.
Arvo Party – Arvo Party
If you’d have asked many fans of LaFaro what bassist Herb Magee would be doing several years done the line, I doubt you’d have found anyone willing to stake a claim to releasing a critically acclaimed album of electronic music. His self titled album may not feature any rock but instead features fifty minutes of ambient soundscapes that ebb and flow across a spectrum of emotion. Fans of the Drive or Stranger Things soundtracks will find much to like here.
Bap Kennedy – Reckless Heart
In light of the tragedy that followed hard upon the completion of Reckless Heart by Bap Kennedy, it is impossible not to attach particular poignancy to this collection of songs. It will now become a time capsule of some of the final thoughts of a beloved musician, poet, man.
Shades of the musical influences of the likes of artists Bap has collaborated with, such as Mark Knopfler can be felt throughout. Either in lyrical construction or vocal delivery. There is the playful Honky Tonk Baby, a seeming tribute to his wife, that swings with exuberance. More tender contemplation can be seen on the tracks, The Universe and Me and I Should Have Said. Reckless Heart, the final album by Bap Kennedy was recorded in Belfast, and released posthumously.
The Divine Comedy – Foreverland
It is quite an achievement for artists to maintain an excitement about their work particularly after they have released multiple records. Step forward Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, eleven studio albums in and still there is a buzz and demand from the public for more. Foreverland is brimming with orchestral flushes, witty lyrics and plenty of heartfelt yearning that we have come to expect. Hannon’s first album in over six years not only very welcome but also proof that even after such a distinguished musical career, the creative fires within still burn bright.
Gross Net – Quantitative Easing
Gross Net mastermind Philip Quinn found himself nominated last year with the better known Girls Names, and now returns with his own, much more experimental project. Formed as a duo with Autumns’ Christian Donaghey, Gross Net is now Quinn and Quinn alone. Quantitative Easing is a challenging prospect, with Quinn’s fairly sparse vocals often blurred into the album’s cold and dark electronica. The theme of money is deliberate as Quinn looks to the economic and political landscape within the album’s often bleak outlook.
Hannah Peel – Awake But Always Dreaming
Awake But Always Dreaming is grounded in the experience of dealing with the harrowing effect of dementia on a family member and this thematic undercurrent makes it one of the most interesting listens. Rather than being a mournful record, listeners will be drawn to its warm, nostalgia inducing nature that shows Peel’s panache for creating unusual, experimental soundscapes. With no fixed genre, each track is a welcome surprise particularly when you draw out the polar opposites of the almost piano ballad led ‘Conversations’ to the shimmering electro pop of ‘All That Matters’. One thing is for sure, Hannah Peel has created one of the most under appreciated releases of the year.
Invaderband – Invaderband
Perhaps released in the wrong decade to be as appreciated as much as it should be. The debut album from the Adam Leonard fronted Invaderband does little to disguise their adoration for the days when post-punk was en vogue. Lyrically, the album covers some interesting ground including the invasion of Iraq, ectoplasm, alien invasion and Alan Rickman and we must admit to rather enjoying rhyming submarine with tangerine, margarine and aubergine. Make no bones about it though the Derry outfit can be pleased to have released one of the most satisfying albums of the year.
Joshua Burnside – Ephrata
Across a couple of EP releases, Co Down’s Joshua Burnside had built himself both a strong following and a collection of well crafted alternative folk songs. Preceding the release of debut album Ephrata was ‘Tunnels Pt. 2’ that suggested a much more expansive sound, with it’s driving alt rock giving way to the kind of layered crescendo we’ve learnt to expect from a man confident in his craft. Inspired by a trip to Columbia and travels through the US, Ephrata is both diverse and exquisite. One moment Burnside combines with Alana Henderson for the beautiful love song of ‘Holllogram’, the next is the experimental piece ‘Tunnels Pt. 1’ before dealing with death and faith on ‘The Good Word’. It’s an album to get lost in.
Malojian – This Is Nowhere
Malojian (Lurgan man Stevie Scullion, with bandmates Michael Mormecha and Joe McGurgan) decamped to Chicago to record This Is Nowhere with Pixies and Nirvana super-producer Steve Albini, captured in Colm Laverty’s film Document. The sessions resulted in their best album yet, a warm, deeply personal yet universal collection of bittersweet pop. Despite the producer’s hardcore background, Scullion’s music is rooted in folky pop of the sixties and seventies, and it’s a celebration of classic song writing throughout, from the Elliott Smith-esque single ‘I’ll Be Alright’ to the closing strings and piano ballad ‘The Great Decline.’ With it’s jangling guitars and Beatlesy harmonies, it’s a real winter warmer of a record. Essential.
Our Krypton Son – Fleas & Diamonds
If you are in need of some beautiful melancholy in your life, one listen to the sophomore record from Our Krypton Son should hit the spot. Beautifully textured and full of orchestral flourishes, it marks a maturing of Chris McConaghy’s song writing ability. From the song titles alone it is apparent that the joys and perils of love are at the forefront of this record and Chris captures them poignantly. Mention needs to be made of the included cover of his transformation of seminal Weezer classic ‘Buddy Holly’ into a piano ballad.
Robocobra Quartet – Music For All Occasions
Operating as a collective, Robocobra Quartet have been defying convention since their formation in 2014. You’d have a hard time finding a sound to match that of the Chris Ryan fronted group. Elements of hardcore, punk and jazz combine under Ryan’s distinct, sometimes howled and oft spoken lyrics on topics like conversations, creativity and relationships. First track and lead single ‘Correct’ has mean hooks bedded within its thudding bass and hypnotic sax, while the self-editing mantra for succinctness within ‘You’ll Shrug’ applies to an album with a 25 minute run time. Drums, bass and saxophone combine for ‘Fugazi meets Mingus’.
Sea Pinks – Watercourse
Across their six albums to date Belfast band Sea Pinks have firmly established their sound. Founded by Neil Brogan, the band have only gotten better but stayed true to their roots of guitar based indie. Watercourse is the band’s second consecutive NI Music Prize nomination following last year’s Soft Days. The jangly guitar is still a key component as on the opener which courses through Vampire Weekend upbeat pop through to a glimpse of a real Western riff. Watercourse doesn’t rip up the formula but there’s a real likeability to Sea Pinks’ guitar driven pop and on the beach choruses.
Contributions courtesy of Aaron Cunningham, Caolan Coleman, Noelle Ellis and Robert Brown.
The Northern Ireland Music Prize will be awarded on Saturday 11 November 2017 in the Mandela Hall. There will be live performances from Arborist, Joshua Burnside, Robocobra Quartet and Last In Line. Tickets are available here.