Originally hailing from Cavan, Ireland and with members now residing in the United States, Australia and Ireland, Sons of Southern Ulster return with their aptly named soul searching second album Sinners and Lost Souls.
The follow up to 2015’s Foundry Folk Songs, which received affirmative and assured reviews not just locally but internationally too, sees the raucous quartet further elaborate on their debut offering. Eleven songs coming in at just under forty minutes it’s cross between spoken word and post-punk will leave you salivating for more.
Caught inbetween fellow countrymen Whipping Boy and Fontaines D.C. it’s easy to see their influences, and also those that they’ve influenced, as they capture growing up as disaffected youth in a small border town during the grim and dire times of the 70s and 80s. They’re representing their generation but in the current climate they’re appealing to the new generation too. A healthy mix of voices just wanting to be heard.
The striking artwork for the album is courtesy of Danish born Claus Castenskiold who did some of the classic Fall album covers including the iconic Perverted By Language and that’s not where the band’s link to Mark. E Smith and co ends as their sound is not too dissimilar to that of the post-punk idols.
The band come flying out of the traps with a double pronged attack with a lethal left-right combination of songs to kick start this beast of an album leaving you no time to come up for air.
Fear My Scorn is Justin Kelly’s ode to the Irish drinking culture as we experience the first of many Mark E. Smith comparisons. It’s evident from the off they mean business as Kelly rants “No more, no more shall I darken that whore’s door”. The squealing, squalling spiky guitars of David Meagher and Paddy Glackin’s driving bass wouldn’t be amiss with a much younger band though their experience and older, maybe not so wiser, heads combine to make a thunderous cacophony of noise. The “No more!” mantra continuing through the opener as they vent their spleen before leaving a dire warning “they laugh behind my back but I laugh last.”
We’re all guilty of it and when They Say I Live in the Past explodes into life it’s a call to arms. Grabbing the mainstream sound by the scruff of its neck and squeezing out the monotony creating their own vital sound. The song sees Kelly unable to let go of the past. Full of guilt and regret “any port in a storm” and too nostalgic for his own good – “someone has to, someone has to remember.” Accompanied by chugging, scything guitars it’s a gritty warts and all documentary of youth with its tales of that “smell of piss” and the all too familiar “slip(ping) in vomit.”
New Day Rises continues at pace and talks of “a miserable dawn.” The sound is upbeat but the thought process is one of being downtrodden and downbeat. Wistfully reminiscing and thinking of “a broken mother” and the coping mechanisms that you find to get through every day. Troubled times nullified by the demon drink. The powerful message being “You learn to live with yourself in the morning, You learn not to hate yourself every day.”
The Fall takes it down a notch although it doesn’t stop the revisiting of a pained and tortured past. More regretful tales of being reckless, feckless and without a care in the world. Dreamers and chancers. Boys who needed taming as they hurtled out of control. Not invincible like they thought they were they needed addressing and bringing back down to earth with “Sly digs and ears ringing from an unexpected wallop” reminding them that they were destined to “shovel shit for the rest of their days” and be “content with their lot”.
The tempo is upped on Terylene Men. The wah wah pedal effect intro giving off an early 90s vibe with no let up in the spoken word delivered with such acidity over the top. The drum and bass beat give the song a soulful funky vibe although there’s always an edge to the song as we’re reminded of how artificial life can be and that there’s “Always an eye for the shilling.”
The ballad-like Ms McDonagh shifts the gears down again because there’s only so much anger you can vent right? Wrong. It’s a pensive number claiming “she’d be spinning in her grave” and “talking of the men who took the soup and stayed out of the workhouse”. Dwelling and doting on a heavy past “steeped in civil war blue shirts and black and tans.” There’s a sense of powerful imagery to this song if you shut your eyes and take it all in.
The ups and downs and shifts in pace on the album reflect the undulating, turbulent and ever changing experiences of growing up in provincial towns. These are the volatile stories that would fail to make the cut in the tourist information brochures when trying to entice people to Ireland for sure.
Busaras Boy is frantic, frenetic and frenzied. It’s confrontational to the point of spitting out the venom. Prowling, preying, instigating and seeking a reaction with its directness. The prompting, probing and penetrating is an attempt at goading for a reaction or a fight, like many of the songs on this long player. Jerky guitars prevalent and Noel Larkins, just like on the rest of the album, drums like his life depends on it.
For The Birds opens with jagged guitars releasing the anger, the energy. The drums build up leaving us battered and bruised. A story of that transition from boy to man and the expectations and dreams. Shattered dreams of course. Proudly telling us that at “fifteen my schooling done”, escaping the youth, becoming a man, getting a job and entering into the world of bingo, pool, darts, fruit machines, discos, fighting and striving for “love….not war”. The realisation it’s a monotonous dead end world where the dreams are exclusively “for the birds” yet they’re only going to be disappointed too.
Stubby Yellow Fingers is as grim as it sounds. The murky real life that you don’t want to hear about but you should. Wordsmith Justin Kelly spewing out everything to make you uneasy and why not? It’s not all rose tinted glasses where he comes from. The taste of stale lager and piss looking “the same going in as it does coming out”, buying goods on the “never never”, a gambling addiction with “dead certs and certain losers” shattering your accumulated dreams. The “stray pubes and flecks of vomit” from those toilets we’ve all been in but don’t talk about but don’t worry “the yellow piss will wash it all away”.
The soaring bluesy Shoes of Strong Leather with its dirty bass, granular guitars and rhythmic drumming set the tone as Kelly’s spoken word ramblings ponder and reminisce even if there is no clear direction ahead “squinting into the sun at the end of a long summers day”.
Because of the logistics surrounding the band right now it’s looking unlikely that Sons of Southern Ulster will get together to play gigs in the foreseeable future though they have promised to release alternative versions of many of the album tracks online in the next few months. That’s a crying shame as their live performance is sure to cause a stir not just in Ireland but further afield too.
The album’s finale comes in the form of the most audio accessible song to the lightweights that have survived the onslaught in Polaris. Its comparisons to Whipping Boy are most definitely a compliment. After enduring a rollercoaster ride of tales of pessimism, longing, desolation, despair and isolation we see light at the end of the tunnel with hope replacing that despair. A story of burying innocence and youth and hollow victories leading to a coming of age and stark realisations. An uplifting, soaring, arousing number with romantic notions accompanied by chiming guitars and heartfelt vocals.
Sinners and Lost Souls is an album that admittedly isn’t an easy listen especially if you don’t want to hear home truths but this is real life so why sweep it under the carpet? It encapsulates not only times gone by but also the current situation we all find ourselves in right now. Make no mistake this is essential listening and one of the albums of 2020 thus far. An album that will stand the test of time, it deserves to be heard far and wide.