It is understandable if you quail slightly at the idea of listening to a release titled The Great Famine. I know I did. Aside from thinking I was in for yet another round of oppressive dark ambient, a musical musing on the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s hardly seemed like something I wanted to take in. That I have now listened to The Great Famine a number of times, quite willingly, speaks to how well composer Peter DiPhillips handles his subject matter, opting for a deeply impressionistic approach that carries the weight of the story without crushing the listener. I feel that although the DiPhillips recognizes that the story he is telling is a tragedy, he also recognizes that within that tragedy there is strength and there is hope and there is change. This is not a dark ambient album focusing on the horrifying aspects of the famine; this is an album that seeks to tell the story of the Irish people during this black time and how they found it within themselves to carry forward. Not to say there isn’t darkness here. There is, draped over the landscape in varying shades. It’s a tint of despair and sadness that, not to overstate this, carefully pervades the proceedings without overwhelming them. Dissonance and seemingly intrusive elements throughout the release help to carry the feel of something being wrong. After the comparative ambient ease of “Hedge Schools,” the uncertainty begins to creep in on “Hunting Orange Men.” In its sharp, sudden chords and the way in which apparently random elements trip through the moment, we come to understand that something is out of joint. You hear it again in “King Magnus Returns.” These two tracks share a guitar element, just a strum of chords, like a repeating motif. “King Magnus Returns” also gets some of its unease from the clatter of chimes. For a purer sense that all is not well, head straight to “Hill of Screams.” This almost indescribable track creaks, squeals, moan ands wobbles its way through, hitting every nerve as it goes. For visceral response, it doesn’t get much more effective than this. I love it and hate it in equal measure. But there is balance here, as any good story requires. “Hope Across the Pond” lightens the mood just slightly, though there are still strands of deep shadow laying across it. “Coffin Ships,” despite the grim name given to those often barely seaworthy vessels that sailed the treacherous waters away from home and off to the new world, is a smooth, pad-driven flow. It’s still sad, laced with dirge-like choral voices, but its comparative still surface ends the release on a thoughtful, meditative note.
So it’s no surprise that The Great Famine is not an easy thing to sit through, but DiPhillips’ work is deep and complex and he clearly has a lot personally invested in telling this story. It doesn’t blink at giving you the creeps here and there, and it fully intends to make you feel its story—and it does. Well worth the initial effort to take this one in.
Available from the Free Music Archive.