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Review: Lankum @ SWX

Lankum’s new album is spellbindingly well-crafted but their live show is a different beast altogether.

by Sam Cox, Digital Music Editor

False Lankum, the most recent record from Dublin doom-folksters Lankum, has been threatening to cast the esoteric four-piece into the mainstream thanks to its across-the-board critical acclaim. Standing in a sold-out SWX in Bristol two months after its release, waiting for the group to make their way to the stage, it would appear that they really have ascended the small-but-loyal folk audiences they’ve previously encountered in favour of a larger but equally impassioned crowd.

Off the back of a sold out show at London’s Barbican, sell-outs across Europe, and even more sold-out shows in the United States at the end of the year, Lankum are evidently attracting audiences wherever they go. As the band notes to the heaving crowd, ‘We sold out our Bristol date so it got moved to a bigger venue. And now we’ve sold it out again.’ With the venues getting bigger, the crowd can’t help but envy the story the group tells of how their last Bristol visit went. It was New Year’s Day 2019 and after their show at the Brunswick Club they found themselves in an underpass underneath a roundabout, chock full of people playing guitars. ‘That’s the Bearpit!’ a few locals in tonight’s audience quickly shout. The band reminisce that after chatting to a few Bearpit-dwellers, one keenly recommends a great new Irish folk group to them. 'They're called Lankum', he enthusiastically tells them. ‘Yeah, that’s actually us. That's our band’, the group responds, and they end up staying in the Bearpit until dawn singing with their new Bristol friends. It’s certainly not a bad way to see in a new year. While tonight is decidedly less fortuitous, it is no less intimate. Close your eyes during False Lankum opener ‘Go Dig My Grave’ and Radie Peat’s voice could be emanating from the corner of any Dublin bar at any time in the last several centuries, so profoundly does it transcend the contemporary.

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As on their studio albums, the joy of Lankum’s live show is a result of the startling dynamics they conjure. The ethereal lull of ‘On a Monday Morning’ and ‘Lord Abore and Mary Flynn’ gently soar across the room, while ‘The New York Trader’ and set-closer ‘Bear Creek’ are almost loud enough to give Swans a run for their money. In the former song, concertinas and harmoniums groan and creak beneath the weight of its supernatural lyrics about a murderous captain on a ship bound for America, whose plans to starve his crew are scuppered by a ghostly apparition. On the latter, uilleann pipes and the stomps of feet (courtesy of both band and audience) end the set in joyous reverie. Throughout the show, the songs are punctuated by the venue-shattering pound of a giant orchestral drum, which the band gleefully suggest gives them the Tolkienian feeling of being orcs going into battle. Equally novel is Peat’s ability to play one instrument with her hands and another with her feet. The two microphones strapped to her wrists seem to symbolise the effervescent musicality that emanates from the very fingertips of this band of multi-instrumentalists.

Lankum @ SWX | Sam Cox

Critics have tended to somewhat lazily liken Lankum to The Pogues - presumably a result of their mutual synthesis of traditional Irish folk with a punkish bombast - but their coalescence of folk storytelling with dread-inducing sonic drones might more accurately recall something along the lines of Planxty by way of latter-day Scott Walker or Sun O))). Yet, to compare Lankum at all to other artists does them a huge disservice. What their arresting show at SWX proves above anything else is how peerless they truly are. The reason this band has ascended from playing to strangers in the wee small hours under a roundabout on the edge of Stokes Croft to selling out thousand-capacity venues across the world is that they really only sound like one thing: Lankum. As one Bristol audience member shouts as a retort to the mention of a recent coronation we supposedly had here in the U.K., Long Live Lankum!

Featured image: Sam Cox

Pick up a physical copy of this month's Epigram on campus to see our current team's final Editor's Picks, which includes Lankum's latest album.