Ayreheart: Barley Moon
The four members of Ayreheart are no doubt acutely aware of the perception a listener new to the band might bring to its music, given that the lute, an instrument typically associated with the Renaissance, is the dominant instrumental voice and centuries-old songs by John Downland and William Byrd constitute a significant part of the group's repertoire. Such a perception, that the natural home for its music is more the dusty museum than modern-day concert hall, is not only premature but dramatically off-the-mark. Ayreheart, it turns out, is very much a contemporary folk group whose energized delivery breathes new life into music that just happens to have been written long ago.
Even a cursory listen to the fourteen settings on Barley Moon (issued on Sono Luminus as a two-disc set, the first a standard CD and the other a Blu-Ray Audio Disc) reveals that the group's emotional and stylistic range is broad. Renaissance music figures heavily, of course, but so too do folk, Celtic, classical, and rock, and one quickly discovers that Ayreheart's members are keeping their particular brand of folk music alive in much the same way Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, The Chieftans, and the Incredible String Band did before them (interestingly, the album includes versions of “Twa Corbies” and “Nottamun Town,” recorded earlier by Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, respectively).
The impact of Brian Kay (with Ayreheart since 2013) on the group's sound can't be overestimated, considering that his vocals are so central. His fresh, youthful tenor does much to give the group its contemporary character and lays to rest any doubt as to its vitality. Kay is one of two lutenists in the band, group founder Ronn McFarlane the other, and as integral to Ayreheart are Willard Morris (colascione, a kind of bass lute) and Mattias Rucht (hand percussion).
Elevated by a characteristically strong vocal by Kay, Barley Moon opens with a robust take on “John Barleycorn,” which listeners of a certain age might already know from the version Traffic included on its 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die. A gentler side to the group emerges thereafter in the 17th-century ballad “In A Garden So Green,” where Kay's vocal, faithful to the song's lyrical tone, bears some resemblance to the singing of Fun's Nate Ruess, a detail that in itself testifies to the contemporary nature of Ayreheart's persona. At the darker end of the emotional spectrum lies Dowland's sorrowful dirge “Fortune My Foe”; his “Come Again,” on the other hand, fully captures the eagerness and excitement of romantic ardour, especially when conveyed so expressively by Kay's vocal.
As memorable as his singing is, it's matched in importance by the dense instrumental latticework generated by the lutes and percussion; certainly one of the album's major pleasures derives from the sound of the lutes weaving together, a detail that naturally comes to the fore during the elegantly rendered instrumentals, whether it be the stately “Mr. Dowland's Midnight” and “Solus Cum Sola” or the spirited dance tune “Lady Hunsdon's Puffe.” Finally, it bears worth mentioning that the integrity of Barley Moon's traditional presentation hasn't been compromised by an attempt to modernize it with electric instrumentation. Ayreheart is hardly in need of any such upgrade.