In their early and most powerful days, Horslips mixed traditional Celtic music with their art rock better than anyone. Granted, not very many people TRIED to do that. But Horslips did indeed truly rock with those Irish sounds – they were heavy, they were proggy, and still they never lost sight of their roots. Now, I know many fellow Americans who find the mix of Irish themes with heavy rock downright stupid and Spinal Tappy. And these guys do cross the line at times. But they’re usually pretty tasteful. They never really had a great singer or a singular front man (like an Ian Anderson), but they were all incredible players and arrangers. And decent writers. They sort of sound like a mix between Thin Lizzy, Tull, and the lighter sides of Sabbath. They start off great – the first two albums are easily the best – but then they move away from their early style into more commercial pastures (with mixed results). They finally arrive at your basic 70s radio rock, retaining only a faint whisper of their Celtic roots. In the end, they weren’t a truly great band, but I’m glad I checked ’em out. And “The Tain” is a super entertaining and tight little album, perfect listening for any 70s concept-art rock fan.
Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part *
The Tain *
The Unfortunate Cup Of Tea
Drive The Winter Away
The Book of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony
The Man Who Built America
Short Stories/Tall Tales
HAPPY TO MEET, SORRY TO PART (1972)
The band’s debut is easily the rawest and most unhinged record they’d ever make. It careens wildly through a set of energetic Celt-Rock nstrumentals, and those wordless wonders are really the heart of the piece. But there are also a couple of solid art pop songs – they are totally different from the traditional songs and proggy jigs that make up most of the record. Let’s talk about those couple songs then first, shall we? The first real composition on the record is the moody Hall of Mirrors, certainly one of the best tracks the band ever recorded. It’s got a strong melody, a memorable refrain, a haunting atmosphere, and some excellent melodic guitar work during the more rocking sections. Years later the band would have trouble coming up with classy pop songs in this vein, but at this point there were more than capable. Later on we get “Furniture,” another non-Irish sounding anomaly – it’s a Floyd-esque ballad with a great chorus. I love the part at the end of the 2nd chorus after “out of the archer’s view” when the band breaks into a remarkably early-Tull-like heavy riff. Great hook, great and dynamics! Both of those songs could easily fit into a classic rock radio station’s programming in 2011, so I guess that means they could have been hits back in the day. They’re totally well written and performed, and very memorable, if a bit rough around the edges. Anyway, none of the other tracks here function like traditional rock songs at all. Most of this record is given over to the Celtic Rock concept, and I must say the band manages to serve up a totally entertaining and expertly performed set of rootsy Irish songs that might have been rendered with far less grit and wit by a less talented group of Shamrockers (did I just make up that term? I doubt it). They range in tone and style – from calm and pastoral to wild and ferocious. There’s a progginess to a lot of this, but I think that’s really more due to the intricacy of the original songs themselves than any overt attempt at complicating or over-emphasizing arrangements. There are two nutty Gaelic traditional songs – An Bratach Bon is a goofy upbeat jig with some virtuosic playing and silly singing. Bhm istigh Ag Yi is similar but more complex and rocking. It KICKS, and may be the best overall track on the record (and thus one of the key Horslips tracks in general). The coda of that song slams harder, with far more grit and muscle, than most traditional folk-rock British Isles bands from the era could muster up (i.e. Fairport Convention or Steelyeye Span). “The Musical Priest” has some great intricate and aggressive passages that really make an argument for the band’s “Celtic RAWK” concept, with the jiggy Irish arrangement re-dressed in electric guitars and 70s keyboards and heavy backbeats. It ain’t all RAWK, though. “Shamrock Shore” is a beautiful Celtic ballad and “Ace and Deuce” a smart acoustic guitar driven instrumental – great interplay, very organic, very rootsy. This is one of the best albums the band ever put together, and in some ways THE best. Certainly the most tasteful and believable – the band hadn’t yet gotten into concept albums or stadium rock or synths or too much bad singing! So I’d say this and the followup are definitely the best places to start with these boys.
THE TAIN (1973)
Easily the best Horslips album, and the obvious starting point for a newcomer to the band. This is a minor masterpiece, and it’s let down only by some weaker moments and generally under-whelming lead vocals. But it’s the most consistent thing the band would ever create, and the most exciting and idiosyncratic. Though it’s a concept album based on an Irish legend, it never feels overbearing or annoying in it’s concept-ness. If anything, the story structure helps the band craft a very fluid and woven together piece. About half the album is devoted to instrumentals – they sound like the debut, but a bit simpler and heavier and more “modern.” The other half is devoted to what are essential pop songs, simple and melodic and usually quite rocking. Early Tull mixed with Gentle Giant is probably the best comparison, but these guys have their own sound – and they’re not really as proggy like I may be making them sound. This is definitely a less organic and folksy album than before, and some synths and overly complex moments might lead less kind listeners to call it “less tasteful.” Well, it may be less tasteful – but it’s also BETTER, with more interesting ideas and hooks running throughout its tight little frame. It’s obvious the band were firing on all cylinders at this point – they’d achieve a few other magical later moments, but they’d definitely never sound this assured on any of their subsequent albums. Another great thing here: instead of separating the rock and folk elements like much of the debut, they integrate them with flair this time around. They aren’t afraid of throwing some fruity jiggy flute parts on top of some heavy guitar riffing, but it’s not like Ian Anderson’s flutery on the Tull albums. It’s more traditional sounding, more distinctly Celtic – so it’s weirder and less rock and roll, but also very unique. Let’s talk about the songs already. The A side is nearly a total winner. After two introductory instrumentals (the opener “Setanta” is positvely Sabbath-esque), we get the first proper song – “Charolais” – one of my absolute favorite Horslips creations. It has a very traditionally Celtic sounding chorus hook (with great harmonies), and a whole lot of fantastic Tull-esque gritty riffery. Very catchy, very energetic, a great track. “You Can’t Fool The Beast” has a killer groove and an exceptional verse (shame about the weak singing), though the chorus is a bit lacking. The overall production wins me over though, especially in album context. Then come two more FANTASTIC tracks. “Dearg Doom” is the album’s absolute highlight, and the band’s most famous song. Apparently it’s a classic rock staple in Ireland , though due to its Celtic-ness it would probably play more as a novelty song in the States (where I’m from). But what a novelty song! It’s got a fucking awesome guitar riff, great vocals (!), a funky muscular groove, and a section at the end where the guitar riff is played on woodwinds – it’s a totally entertaining piece of 70s wackiness. Then comes a glorious heavy ballad called “Fedia’s Song,” with its wonderful “to Battle again” hook. I love it when the heavy Martin Barre-esque guitar chimes in after each verse – it’s almost a Celtic glam rock song. The B side isn’t as good, but it DOES have a lot to live up to! It kicks off with the record’s least interesting vocal song – the unfortunately dull “Cu Chulainn’s Lament.” But it picks up again with the enjoyable if underwritten poppy ballad “Faster Than The Hound,” which has a bit of a Badfinger vibe (these guys would continue to dip their toes in Power Pop territory). “More Than You Can Chew” is another solid pop song let down by weak vocals, but I sure do love that guitar/pipe duet riff! (At least, I think it’s a pipe – I don’t really know how to identify these traditional Irish instruments). The album ends excellently with a beautiful instrumental called “The Morrigan’s Dream,” followed by another huge highlight – the rockin’ “Time To Kill!” That last track might indeed be the most representative early Horslips track of ’em all – it’s got the harmonized chorus, the heavy riffs, the fast Irish traditional interplay…just a great display of this band’s virtuosic talents. This was an inconsistent band, but this is a very consistent album and for me their clear-cut peak.
DANCEHALL SWEETHEARTS (1974)
What the hell is this crap? Oddly, after releasing an excellent 2nd album, winning themselves a hit with “Dearg Doom,” and essentially forging a new genre…the band shifts gears entirely and releases a dopey set of indistinct 70s radio rockers with weak hooks and awful vocals. And the Irishness has suddenly taken a huge back-seat to an almost American sounding generic rock vibe. We still get the token traditional instrumentals and some occasional Celtic adornments, but those elements seem out of place now as opposed to essential parts of an integrated whole. I’m being a bit harsh – this isn’t entirely bad, and there are decent tracks. But as a followup to “The Tain?” Pathetic. Apparently this album was based on some 19th century blind Irish Harper. I don’t get ANY sort of conceptual feeling from this though – and the album cover leads me to expect completely ridiculous 70s commercial cock rock. The whole “feel” of this thing just seems wrong – I can imagine fans at the time crying “sell-out” in a major way. BUT…there are two really strong tracks here. My favorite by far is the stately electric folk song “The Blind Can’t Lead The Blind.” It opens with a female choral part that doesn’t quite work (and essentially rips off “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), but I quite enjoy the main groove and the circular melody. The Irish instrumentation works on that one, as it feels like a traditional song to begin with and the melody seems written to accommodate the pipes and flutes. The other minor winner is the 6 minute “Mad Pat” that opens Side 2. It’s no masterpiece, and a bit obvious in the melody department, but it’s very well performed and chugs along with rocking energy. It’s really quite amazing how downright American this album sounds for much of it’s running time, as if the band were trying to crack that market by attempting to shed their Irish roots as opposed to owning them and teaching Americans a thing or two. What a disappointment! The album opens with a dull and corny bouncy horn driven riff rocker called “Nighttown Boy.” It’s a generally ugly song, with some under-par hooks and very weak vocals….but I do like the horn parts a lot! These guys still possess some arranging power, even if their writing has taken a major hit. “Stars” has a sweet bluesy guitar riff, but the song surrounding it couldn’t be more formulaic and dull. ‘”Sunburst” sounds like a West Coast hippie band – David Crosby working with a slightly more bombastic arranger. It’s well-played but lacking personality and hooks. I can’t remember much about the rest of Side 2 after the previously discussed “Mad Pat.” “Lonely Hearts” is almost a re-write of “You Can’t Fool The Beast,” and displays some of those West Coast influences again. But the verse hook on that one sounds like second rate Steve Miller Band, and the fast organ/guitar bits seem incredibly stupid to me (and we’re talking about a listener who will defend Keith Emerson ’til his death) . YUCK! I wasn’t expecting these guys to drop off so fast – they still sound like pros, but the inspiration seems to have left the picture and we’re stuck with a lame piece of generic product that sounds particularly weak in comparison with its immediate predecessors. Maybe it was due to exhaustion from the road, or label pressure, or money needs – but there’s pretty much no denying the “lack” of this lacking record.
THE UNFORTUNATE CUP OF TEA (1975)
Albums like this make discography reviews so much fun! This is the one Horslips record that gets almost UNANIMOUSLY slammed by fans and critics as the weak link the catalog. People see it as some sort of wannabe-commercial nadir, some bizarre anomaly hardly predicting the “turn around” that would be the proper followup album. From what I’ve read, the band themselves consider it an inessential rush job. WELL…to my ears this is way better than the previous record. It’s also probably the last time the band was ever able to put together a mostly attractive product, and as a radio-friendly Horslips sell-out attempt, it’s far more accomplished than the disappointing post “Book of Invasions” trilogy. Now, this is hardly some lost pop masterpiece – it’s still got that same dopey and dated quality exhibited by the previous album, and the weak singing remains a giant problem spot. The production ain’t much to speak of, the overall effect of the record is incredibly slight, and none of these compositions are going on my giant list of favorite songs anytime soon (well, maybe ONE of them can find a slot on the list). But even so, this is mostly well written, lovingly performed, and quite entertaining. I think the criticism mostly derives from the 7 minute opener, and easily the weakest track, “(If That’s What You Want) That’s What You Get.” It’s got a stupid disco groove, a boring obvious melody, and some tasteless female back-up vocals. It’s basically 20 silly 70s cliches wrapped into one underwritten song without a good hook, and it goes on for over 7 minutes. It might have been a more enjoyable track with better production and vocals – the gritty guitar riff is sorta cool, and there’s a neat goofy flute/wah wah guitar/strings part that crops up from time to time. It’s a fun and entertaining idea for a song, but it’s just not all that well executed, and I’m not surprised fans took it as an insult to their intelligence. The rest of the album sounds similar to the previous one, with the same simple gritty blues pop songs adorned by occasional Celtic instrumentation….but thankfully the material has taken a big step up. “Ring-A-Rosey” is a super bouncy and adorable West Coast-inspired pop tune. It reminds me a bit of early Blue Oyster Cult in their least rocking moments. “Flirting In The Shadows” has some beautiful guitar parts, though it’s not much of a song and the admittedly memorable “never been kissed” refrain couldn’t be sillier. I quite enjoy Self Defense and it’s catchy “can’t tell wrong from right” hook. It also has an awesome flute solo (it’s impossible not to think of Tull while listening to that song). Many people equate “flute solo” with “not awesome,” but if your mind hasn’t been totally warped by the harmful narrow minded critical cesspool that grew out of the punk era, you should be able to appreciate a ripping solo on any instrument. “High Volume Love” is easily the best example of a Horslips generic (in a good way) classic rock song – it’s got a super memorable harmonized riff, some nice 70s bluesy grit, and a fun pub rocky atmosphere. It’s my favorite song here, the only one worthy of that “list” previously described, and one of the band’s greatest recordings. The 2nd side of the album remains relatively strong, with solid tunes and good playing, though nothing truly STICKS. But to write this album off as a worthless and forgettable entry here would just be wrong – it’s not going to replace the first two albums, but it’s certainly no worse than everything that came immediately after it.
DRIVE THE WINTER AWAY (1975)
The fan base must have expressed some, ahem, concerns about the band’s radio-friendly direction – so the boys plopped out this quickie acoustic traditional Celtic album to keep dem ol’ fans at bay. The band sounds amazing on here. After all, these were incredibly professional players and knew this genre like the back of their hairy hands. Their mastery of all this rootsy Irish instrumentation, and their prowess with acoustic instrumentation, makes you wonder why they even felt inclined to go so “heavy” in the first place. I don’t much to say about this – it’s all traditional songs, very Irish and very folksy. I’m not familiar with this type of music, nor am I huge fan of it. So I can’t say whether or not this a particularly accomplished Irish roots record, or just a wannabe attempt by a bunch of commercial rockers. But whatever the case, this is certainly worth a listen if it happens to be St. Patrick’s Day or something 😉 And the singing sounds far more comfortable in this context than on most of their records proper. So in some ways, this is the least problematic album in the band’s entire catalog! It just ain’t a rock album.
THE BOOK OF INVASIONS: A CELTIC SYMPHONY (1976)
I swear to you: Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner obviously heard this album before writing “This Is Spinal Tap.” And I don’t mean that as a compliment. For reasons unclear to me, fans and critics tend to regard this as the band’s masterpiece. To my ears this is one of their weakest efforts, and CERTAINLY their cheesiest and most dated. On the positive side, the conceptual nature and seamless track flow does create a tight sounding framework for this weak material, and the arrangements on here are generally quite accomplished. This is definitely professional and often very well executed. It’s just that the songs mostly suck, the lyrics are utter garbage, and the singing is the worst on any Horslips record. And the silly lyrics and heavy Celtic riffing, coupled to some tasteless synth usage and a generally cock rocky atmosphere – well it all adds up to a product that just begged to be parodied. For all it’s ambitions, this is mostly just a generic and poorly written 70s AOR album (though it has more heart than most of those records). It’s got a similar scope and style to “The Tain,” but it’s not nearly as catchy or rocking as that album, and it doesn’t even come close to creating the same unique atmosphere. The first side of the record shoots for the “Celtic Symphony” thing by putting together a bunch of suites centered around this dopey repeated melodic motif. Between the instrumental sections we get a handful of really weak rockers with abysmal lyrics. And what is going on with the singing here? One of these guys (I don’t know who) takes most of the leads on this record, and he’s got this weak low unsubstantial Phil Lynott-esque voice (but not even close to Phil in terms of power or personality). The generic and pitchy delivery alone renders many of these tunes DOA, but it’s mainly a writing issue. The best overall track on the A side is “Trouble (With a Capital T)” – it’s got a really great driving flute and guitar riff, and even though the singing and lyrics embarrass me greatly (it opens by awkwardly rhyming “boat” with “folk” and includes lines like ‘And even when my heart grows cold, I’ll curse your evil strangehold”), the song basically won me over in the end. But the next one wasn’t so lucky. “The Power And The Glory” is a TERRIBLE and hideous sounding cock rocker with a chorus better suited to a bad KISS record and a gross repeated Celtic synth part. Yikes. The album picks up again and never sinks quite so low – “The Rocks Remain” is a nice harmonized Who-like ballad and one of the more tasteful tracks here. The intricate and driving “Sword of Light” is another near winner let down by terrible lyrics and weak vocals. The B Side sounds less distinct and pretty much does away the symphonic thing entirely. “Warm Sweet Breath of Love” is like Thin Lizzy mixed with Steve Miller Band (was it just a coincidence that this band started borrowing from fellow Irishmen Thin Lizzy? The bands really had nothing to do with each other before this)…The other tracks pass me by, but I kinda like the closer “Ride To Hell” with its harmonized chorus. Oh, and there’s also a prog version of “My Lagan Love,” which is a traditional Celtic song and the love theme from Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” It’s quite silly. QUITE silly. Just like this disappointing album – don’t make a mistake and let it be your first Horslips record.
The last three Horslips albums couldn’t be more inessential. They move away from their tangled Celtic prog/hard rock stylings and adapt a basically non-descript late 70s radio rock personality that could be attributed to any number of mediocre bands. The sound grows into a power pop/AOR hybrid, and though the band still manages to muster up some occasional interesting hooks and riffs, and the energy level remains consistently high—the records are so slight they basically disintegrate upon listening. Granted, this change isn’t too surprising since the band was always basically a classic rock group with Irish traditional music as mere coloring. There’s always been a dopey quality to their songs proper. But there was also always a bit of grit, and some ambition. These later albums are just limp and unsubstantial song collections. This one represents the first of what may be considered this “late Horslips” trilogy – three albums of forgettable non-starters. And this one is the most married to the old style in that it’s a concept album about Irish immigration to America. The concept is very thin, and you could easily get through this entire record without even realizing it’s there. NOW, for the record, I actually like the A side of this album better than the “Book of Invasions” material. It’s far less corny, and since it’s shooting for less, it doesn’t fall on its face nearly as hard. It’s basically just a formulaic and forgettable set of OK classic rock tunes. The Thin Lizzy influence has taken hold now in a major way, but there’s no central Phil Lynott-esque personality here to raise this material above the generic pile. The most Lizzy-esque song, and the best Horslips song since “High Volume Love,” is easily the really fun and rocking “Sure The Boy Was Green,” which sounds almost exactly like a hybrid Jethro Tull/Thin Lizzy number. Nothing on here matches in terms of energy and memorability, but the other A side numbers hold their own quite nicely. “The Wrath of the Rain” is Thin Lizzy-lite with its harmonized guitar riff and steamrolling rhythm parts. “Speed The Plough” is another similar rocker with a decent hook and professional arrangement. These numbers aren’t nearly as dorky and cringe-worthy as the “Book of Invasions” songs, but they aren’t as distinct either. They’re just mediocre rock product from a capable but relatively faceless group of pros. The pleasant “Come Summer” is quite possibly the most Tull-like song the band ever recorded, though that could be because the verse vocal hook is actually cribbing from a real Tull song. I can’t put my finger on it right now. The rest of this album does absolutely nothing for me, and there are some total throwaway tracks like the boring instrumental “Exiles” and the dull ballad “Ghosts.” There’s also a heavy handed “summing it up” closer called “A Lifetime To Pay.” So this is not good enough to be even your fourth or fifth Horslips record. And therefore it’s not really worth anyone’s time except the most ardent fans or most curious rock listeners. Or the freak completists like me who just KNOW that obscure bands’ obscure albums contain some of the best music in rock history. We KNOW it. And sometimes we’re proven right. This is not one of those times.
THE MAN WHO BUILT AMERICA (1978)
Well, Mr. Horslips. Here we are. It’s 1978, you’ve basically abandoned your Celtic roots, and now you’re trying to sell me with another formulaic radio rock record. Not quite an AOR record – you’ve got a bit too much taste and rootsiness for that. But something in the same ballpark anyway. Moments here even remind me of power pop records form the same era. And I’ll give you this: your belly is full of great players, smart instinctual musicians, and even occasional some quality songwriters. But I hate to say it: you lack personality, And your edge is gone. This album, Mr. Horslips…well, it just sounds a bit lame. A bit kids’ stuff, if you know what I mean. It’s so slight and fluffy I can’t even get a hold on it – and most of the material it puts forth with admitted gusto registers not a quiver of a shred of a spark in my soul. It’s product – neatly done, well produced, incredibly sterile, and mostly just forgettable and dull. But wait! I didn’t say there weren’t a couple quality tracks here! Because there are…a…couple…OK tracks. Take the title track for example. Catchy anthemic hooks, fun arpeggio guitar part – sure, the lyrics are a bit corny, and the vocals mediocre, but I can’t deny the smart pop songwriting. And how about the VERY catchy “Green Star Liner,” which does indeed utilize a Celtic sounding keyboard part woven into a nice pop song with a cute harmonized chorus. The song has an early Steely Dan vibe, and it works. Early on in the record we get the decent power popper “Tonight (You’re With Me)” – the chorus is fun and sing-alongy, and there’s a welcome Thin Lizzy feel to the whole thing. Those three stick out in a sea of mediocrity and dullness. Moments perk me up in the other songs – like the oddball synth part in closer “Long Time Ago,” or the energy level and rocking flute parts of “Homesick.” But the songs themselves don’t really do it for me. And there are couple big low point here too, most obviously the 6.5 minute ballad “I’ll Be Waiting,” which is insufferably cheesy and generic, sucks in most every way possible – and it comes early enough on the record to nearly kill the thing before it even gets going. So yes, this is a further move away from Celtic prog, and it’s basically “Aliens” part 2 (but even more polished and streamlined than that record). But Mr. Horslips, you’ve ALWAYS been basically a 70s pop band with some fancy Irish clothing. So this isn’t as odd or sell-out-y as, say, Gentle Giant’s “Civilian” or “Giant For A Day” records. This just sounds like the band took their mid 70s sound and threw away their old-timey instruments. There are certainly worse albums you could listen to – but then, there are DEFINITELY better ones.
SHORT STORIES/TALL TALES (1979)
And so the boys go out with a 35 minute whimper at the very tail end of the art rock era. Longtime fans don’t give this record much attention, and it’s reputation seems far worse than any of the other Horslips records. But you know WHAT? This is definitely the best of the “pop trilogy” the band released after “Book of Invasions,” and I like it even MORE than that supposed classic! It’s short, sweet, not very ambitious but also not very embarrassing either. It’s just an OK little late -70s radio rock album. It rocks when it needs to, the band is pro and tight, and the writing is always above average. The Thin Lizzy vibe is still there, and though there are some serious lyrical issues (the chorus of “Unapproved Road” couldn’t be more awkward in its phrasing), I really don’t have any problem with any of the material on here. No annoying 6 minute shitty ballads or silly conceptual overtones. Well – actually, “Back In My Arms” is a 4 minute shitty ballad. But it’s BETTER than the 6 minute one of the previous record, so there’s that! There’s very little Irishness on display here, if ANY! I certainly can’t remember very many instances of old Horslipsy instrumentation sneaking in anywhere save for the occasional Celtic-tinged guitar part. Side 2 on here is actually a really entertaining and enjoyable run of tunes. It starts with my favorite overall track – “Summer’s Most Wanted Girl” – which sports a catchy Tull-like refrain and a neat circular synth part. “Amazing Offer” opens with a cute acappella section and breaks into a generic but fun pub rocker. “Rescue Me” is a rootsy and warm harmonized acoustic ballad. Closers “The Life You Save” and “Rock Opera” both contain some great guitar work, the former sounding almost glam rocky and the latter once again dipping into major Phil Lynott territory. Over on the A side, “Ricochet Man” is a bouncy novelty-esque number with a Police vibe. The other songs are decent too, if not all that striking. There’s not too much more to say about this unassuming record – it doesn’t add anything important to the band’s legacy, and it won’t satisfy the likely Irish prog urges of most people seeking out this band. So in the end, it’s a bit useless. But professionalism wins out in the end – it ain’t going to change anyone’s life, or opinion about the band, or opinion about ANYTHING really…but it’s still a well crafted generic rock album.