I was introduced to Afro Celt Sound System by my friend Jeff  (at least that’s how I remember it; some of those mid 90s parties are a bit hazy :). They’re a UK-based crossover outfit that marries Irish traditional music with West African influences and wraps the whole thing into electronic/dubby sounds (guess that’s the “Sound System” part).
What’s great about ACSS is that they came right out of the gate with a fully formed sound – the first track on the first album already had all the elements they would develop and iterate later. I’ve always been fascinated by the swirly jigs and reels of Irish and Scottish music – my sense is that this is an Ur form of trance music because of its repetitive nature (and social performance for singing/playing along or dancing). And I really like bagpipes, fiddles, accordions and flutes. And I think the bodhran (pronounced ‘boh-ran,’ as I just learned yesterday) is a wonderful percussion instrument. So the idea of melding these things with West African music – percussion, guitars, koras, vocals – seemed like a good idea. In the same way that sometimes, what seems like a good idea bombs terribly and turns into a failed experiment, especially in the ‘world fusion’ department.
But Afro Celt Sound System pull it off resoundingly. In fact, they’re one of the best examples of how sensitive musicians can forge something net-new by merging age-old traditions (other examples may be Nitin Sawnhey and Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke Band).
Much of ACSS’s strength lies in strong production from founder Simon Emmerson and vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird. The production values on each of its 5 studio albums (there’s also a remix CD/DVD set) are very high. It’s all on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and he even guests on a track (‘When You’re Falling’ on Volume 3: Further in Time). Other guests, spread across the records, include Sinéad O’Connor, Robert Plant, Sevara Nazarkhan, Jesse Cook, Eileen Ivers and Shooglenifty.
I like the gentle but pronounced progression in these albums – volumes 1 through 5 really do constitute a journey, a growth series for this band.
Volume 1: Sound Magic flexes its wings, opens up possibilities and tries things out while staying close to a tribal/dance/electronica format in many respects, meeting the predominant genre of the day head-on. Even the slow, reflexive tracks have heavy bass lines and thick, dubby rhythms.
Volume 2: Release was the great coming-out of ACSS into the world or world music, a time – I seem to remember – when they toured a lot and were quite highly regarded in circles ranging as far as world music fans and trance/tribal house kids. Volume 3: Further in Time was searching, establishing more of a pop sound and leveraging some famous guests. It was musically very accomplished but perhaps not as exciting as the first two records.
Seed (no ‘Volume’ here but really Volume 4) was quieter and maybe a little confused. It was a more acoustically focused affair, more ‘ethnic’ and folky sounding. Then came Pod, a collection of remixes – some are excellent, but overall it’s probably not worth spending the money (however, the real selling point for me was the DVD which has the video for ‘When You’re Falling’). Finally, Volume 5: Anatomic seems to be the mature artist statement – a beautiful, measured, deeply touching and highly entertaining work.
I certainly hope they’ll keep making music. I think (naively, perhaps) that the world needs more successful crossover acts. I find them musically more engaging and fulfilling than most ‘straight-up’ things I hear. I appreciate this for its subtlety and quiet beauty – which is not to say it’s quiet. Some of it is quite raucous, good for toe-tapping or dancing a jig.