Clann Zú's change of direction on their sophomore record is astonishingly risky. Much of the charm of their first record Rua came from the original amalgamation of traditional Celtic elements with modern (at times electronic) percussion and very genuine lyrical vitriol. This was the backdrop for a set of sorrowful, dark (to the point of gothic) songs of Irish cultural reclamation. The mix was at times quite lively, with busy violins clashing over impassioned vocals; a few songs were even compared to DJ Shadow's work and bordered on being outright danceable. Compared to that record Black Coats & Bandages is completely raw, shockingly so. It's a record of mid to slow paced ballads, sparely arranged and sparsely produced. The prevailing theme in the title track (and the band's press) is `funeral oration.'
The enjoyably different Irish instrumentation has been for the most part completely dropped. Frontman Declan de Barra never screams an angry tirade like Rua's defining "Words For Snow," his vocal delivery is far more subtle and measured. The vocalist' s understated falsetto calls to mind Radiohead's Thom Yorke (albeit with less of a whine). With that in mind I was quite ready to write this record off. It seemed clear to me that Clann Zú had sacrificed the fun, aggressive and hooky parts of their sound for something more artistic. While that will likely thrill the indie crowd that feeds on such ostentatious tripe, blissfully moronic Ramones songs can still far too easily satisfy my own tastes.
Yet I didn't even believe that was my opinion of a band I was in love with last year and rather stubbornly put off this review. While their sound has certainly evolved there was certainly nothing that felt shallow about this album or the band's delivery. I wasn't "getting it," plain and simple. That was the problem and I knew it.
It was not until I forced a change in atmosphere that Black Coats & Bandages truly clicked for me. It's a step I wouldn't take for most groups, but most groups haven't proved themselves to be worth the effort like this one. I write this sitting here late at night, in complete darkness and free of any distraction. It's here, when the record can entirely control the mood, that the brilliant, genre bending Clann Zú of ol' emerges.
Songs like "So Complicated Was The Fall" benefited most from this atmosphere. The band's trademark violins move hauntingly across the track, one of the record's heavier songs instrumentally. There's a moment of screeching guitar work near the song's conclusion that sounds dangerously abrasive. The bass driven, Irish language "t-éan bán" channels Disintegration era Cure at times, a record that shares Black Coats' pacing. There's a sudden blast of distortion that emerges in the piano driven "One Bedroom Apartment" that feels hugely cathartic. It's a curious effect that emerges more than a few times across the album's ten songs: de Barra's fragile vocal delivery will unexpectedly be countered with an outburst of violent instrumental dissonance that drives home his anger with a spectacular lack of subtlety.
Black Coats & Bandages is a dark, quiet record. It's not a casual listen and in that lies my difficulty in initially grasping it. It's certainly doesn't suit the season it was released in by any stretch of the imagination. This is a moody, deeply personal document that demands the proper attention for it to work its charms. Give it that and you'll be rewarded.
Clann Zú - From Bethlehem To Jenin