Maritime Music

Apparently people associate Irish traditional music with the sea. At least the organisers of Bremen’s Festival Maritim do, or else I would not have played there with Tobermore last August, alongside other folk bands like Harmony Glen and Alban Fuam. Perhaps Ireland’s insular geography evokes an association with anything marine in the heads of continental land lubbers. Perhaps the cultural ties with other British islands blurs the distinction between sea shanties and slip jigs. What’s more, the hornpipe, which is found throughout English, Scottish, and Irish traditional music, is a sailor’s dance by origin.

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In any case, Festival Maritim was a absolute blast, a feast of music, food, and drink, the closest you might get to rock ‘n roll without amplifiers. We played four gigs, sold a load of CDs, had a massive session on Saturday night and met many wonderful fellow musicians. Special mention goes to the Shoepolishers, a French folkpunk band we befriended over sessions and Kraken rum. Except for The Pogues and Kultur Shock I find most folkpunk bands painfully boring and staggeringly unoriginal, but these folks played a juggernaut of a show: such energy, such enthusiasm.

Do the Shoepolishers play maritime music? Not that I could hear. If you’re looking for any musical reference to maritime affairs at the Festival Maritim, go to one of the uncountable shanty choirs, who will sing old sailor’s songs from the days when singing was a way of synchronising manual labour on a sailing vessel or in the harbour. There is no guarantee that any of the singers has ever been at sea, although I would not be surprised if some or most have a sailing boat at home. Fascination with the ocean does not require a maritime profession, and there are many ways to quench your thirst for salty water if your day job is at the office.

This summer I also had a very short-lived musical career with The Pyrates, substituting for their violinist Rowan Schuddeboom. The Pyrates play old English, Irish, Australian, and New-Zealand folk songs, played on drums, guitar, bass, and fiddle. And dressed as a pirate from Pirates Of The Caribbean, of course. It was one of the most difficult and stressful things I ever did for fun. Most of the band had extensive musical experience, which put the bar a lot higher than I could manage. The drummer had toured all over the world with Within Temptation, and the reason Rowan was not available was that he was busy completing his conservatory education. When, after one gig (on Kijkduin beach, aptly) the band decided that they would rather cancel the second gig than play it with me I felt disappointed, hurt, but also relieved. But it was a valuable experience, and I learned a lot from it musically as well as personally. Don’t quit your day job, an A&R manager would say.

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So what makes music maritime? Surely lyrics can refer to a sailor’s life, the call of the sea, or the mysteries below the waves. There are countless Irish tunes with names like Out On The Ocean, The Rolling Waves, or The Ships Are Sailing. But music itself? Can something as abstract as music capture the rhythm of the waves, the endless horizons, and the merciless rage of a stormy ocean?

After my fishing trip on the SL-9 I wrote a tune that I decided to call The Flyshoot:

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I felt it had to be a slip jig. Only a slip jig can capture the broken rhythm of a cutter as it makes a seemingly perfect arch in the sky while it climbs over a wave, only to violently crash into another wave as it comes down, and then goes up again. (Considering that flyshooting is originally a Danish fishing technique – the Danes call it snurrevaad – a polka may have been more fitting but it just doesn’t feel right.)

How about metal? One of my favourite post-metal bands is a German collective called The Ocean. Although I had missed their gig at Roadburn in 2013, I blindly bought their CD Pelagial, and only because it was their only CD with an instrumental version (I usually hate what passes for vocals in metal: most of it is grunting, screaming, or just whining). Pelagial describes a journey to the darkest depths of the ocean, which is supposed to be a metaphor for the unconscious (what metal bands lack in basic psychology they compensate with pseudo-Freudian psycho-babble). I’m sure the sounds of a heavily breathing diver and bubbles escaping from his mental submarine help, but even without those sounds the music is fitting for the dramatic contrasts between tense, eery calm and uncontrollable rage that makes the sea so fascinating to us terrestrial apes.

Recently I discovered Ahab, a German doom metal band whose music is inspired entirely by Moby Dick. Their first album, Call Of The Wretched Sea, is full of slow, dark, heavy riffs as macabre and unstoppable as the fate of the captain and his white whale. Yes, there is grunting on the album, lots of it, and I needed to get used to it to appreciate the album. But it works.

Then there is Alcest‘s Écailles de Lune, which supposedly is inspired by oceans and seas, but hearing that in their music takes more of my imagination than it does for the two albums I just mentioned. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful, dramatic album, shoegazing at its best. Internetfora also mention ISIS‘s Oceanic, and Mastodon‘s Leviathan, but I find those least convincing. Oceanic sounds too blunt, too ‘square’, to resemble the ocean in any way (perhaps a four-fourth measure just doesn’t cut it). And Leviathan is simply Mastodon: perfect music for a biker bar but not for rolling waves.

Any other suggestions? Which ocean-inspired metal band should I absolutely check out?

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