Album Reviews - The Thin Air

Ciara O’Neill – The Ebony Trail


The modern folk music scene is all too often seen as the playground of minimal imagination. In recent years it has divided opinion more than most and rightfully so, suffering as it does from sub-par input with lazy, introspective lyrics and generic instrumentation. Such is the dilution of the genre, it takes something special to stand out and demand attention. Ciara O’Neill’s album, The Ebony Trail is a largely sparkling piece of work with inventive themes, ideas and directions yet it is also an album which occasionally fails to match its own high standards. Ciara takes a worn out trope and twists it into something new. The Ebony Trail feels, at times, as through you are listening to the semi-conscious recollections of a nightmare. For the most part, it is an enthralling listen. When the opening lyric of the album is, “I’m riding the wave of an ebony trail. Knee deep in mud, all alone in my grave”, you suspect that you might be getting something a little different.

Opening with the song of the same name, The Ebony Trail begins with the unsettling sound of footsteps on leaves. A hypnotic melody and foreboding piano add to the building tension, O’Neill’s vocals –which are utterly exceptional—work well in contrast to the gloomy musicianship. Lyrically, the song ignores standard topics in favour of rich, dark brushstrokes such as ‘Trees bark the memories engraved on its skin, a lifetime of memories, a lifetime of sin’. This strong opening is carried through into ‘Dead, Black’, a song which first appeared on last years Primroses EP. Her vocals are pushed in front of a hypnotic drum beat here to dazzling effect.

Sonically, the album feels somewhat limited however. Early on it finds its way into a warm and engaging corner and seems content to stay there. The production is lush and beautiful and while the strength of the songs largely carries the album through, there are times when you find yourself hoping to be surprised. Unfortunately, that surprise never really materialises and you get the sense that an opportunity to showcase other sides of her talent has been missed.

Nonetheless, the second half of the album also shines. ‘Primroses’ opens with a stunning acapella vocal which grows into a tender ballad that will inevitably draw similarities with Lisa Hannigan. It would be a disservice to O’Neill to frame her as “The Next Anybody” though as her voice and song writing are strong enough to be admired in their own right.

Closing with ‘The Road’, certainly not a poor song by any means, gives the album a frustratingly gentle send off. It slips out with reverbed guitars and the sound of footsteps treading on leaves once more. This cyclical aspect is a nice touch but you can’t help but think that it is reflective of the stationary nature found in the sounds and production. Overall, this is a minor concern though as the dark and menacing tones matched with some truly stunning vocal performances are sprinkled generously throughout the album to offer a genuine and viable alternative to the tired singer/songwriter genre. If Ciara O’Neill can show that she has a Plan B, there could be a very impressive career ahead. David O’Neill

The Ebony Trail will be released on March 5th with an album launch in the Clayton Hotel, Belfast. Check out Ciara O’Neill on her website