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ALBUM REVIEW: The Answer

ALBUM REVIEW: From pain and darkness emerges beauty and light from The Answer on the emotionally heart rending Solas

WILLIAM Butler Yeats spoke of “My Dark Declivities” in his poem ‘Parting’. Less than a year ago The Answer faced pain, crisis on a band level and on a very personal level for singer Cormac Neeson. Their own dark declivity and a parting loomed.

Exhausted and in a real emotional turmoil it could have broken many a person and torn apart a band that has become the totemic voice of Northern Ireland hard rock. And, it nearly did.

But there is something in the Celtic and Northern Irish spirit that refuses to be beaten, refuses to lie down, that takes the bitter blows, rolls with them and emerges stronger. We spit into the darkness and suck away the negative energies to make the light shine brighter, greeting the new dawn, defiant despite the physical and emotional scars and a touch of the melancholic at the end

The title of the new album from The Answer is ‘Solas’, the Celtic word for light and drawn from the personal agonies there is a light and a magnificence about this album.

Let’s be honest The Answer, in more than a decade, have never released a poor track. Even their less strong tracks are the envy of most bands plying their rock. But ‘Solas’ elevates itself way above what they have done in the past. They have brought forth something from within and shared with us all the definitive hard rock release from the band.

There is a departure from some previous albums, but it as if the band have distilled all they have learned, decreed that this will be musically and lyrically a real labour of love, and delivered an honest release on all levels.

Even without knowing the back story to this release this is a powerful album. But it is the backstory that makes it all the more remarkable…

Roll back to the start of 2015. They’d wrapped up the Raising a Little Hell tour in a mess. And, then Cormac’s son, Dabhog, was born three months premature, weighing just 1lb 12oz. Mutiple issues with the young man’s health weighed heavy.

How the man and his family held it together is remarkable in itself.

With the many crises the band sequestered themselves in their home studio, cast aside distractions and said to hell with everything apart from their families.

What they have produced as a result – and in the circumstances is a truly outstanding set of songs. Broody, contemplative, beautiful.

Rock is still there, present and correct, but this has real depth, real weight, no faux waving metaphorical arms around.

There is a clear nod to their Celtic roots and the deep connection with everything that shaped Northern Ireland.

Title track ‘Solas’ as an opener sets the tone – don’t expect your average rock album it says loudly as the incantation “What the light don’t fill, the darkness kills” haunting the listener’s thoughts.

Second track, ‘Beautiful World’ is agonisingly great. Regret and pain writ large as Paul’s guitar echoes the agony in one of his finest performances ever.

But the veil of darkness is pulled from the eyes as ‘Battlecry’ opens with a delicate acoustic line before James’ drum line gently urges the track forward.

Repeating the Celtic phrase: “Seo An Lá A Thainig Mo Ghrá”, (This Is The Day My Love Arrives) as a counterpoint to the defiant delicacy of the lyric “I know that no one is invincible, This world cannot ignore us,” is a stroke genius as is Micky’s subtle basslines.

There is something wonderful about the laid back groove of ‘Untrue Colour’ as these four musicians pull off a track that has a sweet lushness lurking within to have your foot tapping and just leave you smiling.

The Northern Ireland theme of the sound is reflected in the superb ‘In This Land’ which is simply a tribute to NI, referencing the fateful nature of a troubled history and the achievements of the likes of Van Morrison, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and the adopted son, Rory Gallagher. With mandolin as a counterpoint to the acoustic once again Paul pulls out a brief and glorious solo to round the sound off.

‘Thief Of Light’ could come across almost dirge like in lesser hands as it opens, before a strange, attractive hopefulness emerges.

A mash up of Celtic, rock and country ‘Being Begotten’ is one of those songs that just nails you. Let’s put it this way, it would sit nicely on Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti, such is the craft and dexterity in its gentle touch and kick in the balls lyrics.

If you want to remember the very best of rock melody, then ‘Left Me Standing’ has more moves than a chess master on speed, all matched in a bitter poem of anger.

With a twist ‘Demon Driven Man’ slithers from the Deep South of the US of A, before kicking in with a trademark Cormac chorus and lyric that turns the subject of attack back on himself.

‘Real Life Dreamers’ sees the band joined by Irish singer ‘Fiona O’Kane’ in a song that stretches the boundaries.

“The life I knew taught me to believe in a dream” Cormac calls out and the entire structure of the song and the hope it espouses are so uplifting that it should be played before every session of the United Nations.

Closer, ‘Tunnel’, on the other hand is a reminder of struggles, the fight and the fact that despite all our rush to the light, despair may always dog the footsteps of individuals and humanity itself.

It serves to tie up the narrative arc within the album, and to cause us to pause and reflect…

Engineered by Paul, production duties are handled by the team behind their first album, Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh, to a certain extent a narrative arc in itself. A decade ago The Answer were fresh faced rockers, filled with talent in abundance.

Now, through experience and the vagaries of the road combined with the vagaries of fate that visited the band they have emerged tempered in fire, but sharper, more mature. The four fresh faced rockers are now men.

Sure, we always knew Cormac, Paul, Micky and James are all masterful musicians, amazing songwriters and outstanding performers, but this is an album that rises them up. This is one of the best ‘rock’ releases not just of the year, but perhaps of the decade.

Review by Jonny

Solas is released via Napalm Records on October 28th. Buy it!

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