In a few days, Lankum will most likely win the 2023 Mercury Music Prize for their fourth album False Lankum – but don’t let that put you off.
Increasingly, the Irish quartet feel like they belong to the lineage of artists who have wreaked radical and lasting change upon British and Irish folk traditions, from Davey Graham, Fairport Convention and Pentangle to Steeleye Span, the Pogues and Lau. The kind of artists who burrow deep into the forest of tradition in order to plant dynamite within the heartwood.
Appearing at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), Lankum played a set spilling over with invention, irreverence and attrition. Four chairs lined the front of the stage, all but obscured by a sea of exotic instruments – pump organs, pipes, acoustic guitars, accordions, a hurdy-gurdy; the kinds of instruments musicians strap themselves into and then hang on to for dear life. There was sawing and droning and whirring and creaking; at times, we might have been below deck on a ship heading for Ellis Island. They also had a very big drum, which touring member John Dermody sometimes deployed with the brutal efficiency of a contract killer, at other times evoking the driving narcotic pulse of the Velvet Underground.
Lankum go long. It can take several minutes for a piece of music to emerge from the mists to gather a head of steam, before gaining the kind of momentum which isn’t easily brought to heel. Several songs lasted more than ten minutes, during which once familiar landmarks in the traditional ecosystem were pulled up by the roots. They turned ‘The Wild Rover’ into something not so much wild as feral, a funereal, drone-scarred exercise in drama and dynamics. ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ was severely traumatised, the torrential flow of words eliding into something chilling and almost ambient, all squeaks and ominous aural shadows.