Review: Fontaines D.C.’s restless spirit inspires on terrific ‘Skinty Fia’
Fontaines D.C.'s third album Skinty Fia opens with an elegy. Against mournful choral harmonies, frontman Grian Chatten chants "gone is the day, gone is the night," with only a single note bassline as backing. The drums eventually kick in with an almost jungle-inspired beat and things really take off. Add in sheets of atmospheric guitarwork and Chatten's vocals, which get more plaintive and unhinged as the song continues, and this album is off to a powerful start.
Those choral harmonies are singing part of the opening song's title, "In ár gCroíthe go deo," an Irish phrase which translates to "In Our Hearts Forever." According to Chatten, it's a phrase a family wanted to put on the gravestone of their mother who had emigrated from Ireland to Coventry, England but the Church of England ruled that, at risk of it being seen as a political message, they do not allow the Irish language to exist on an Irish person’s gravestone.
This hits at the thematic heart of the album. When the band began, their hometown was so intrinsic to their image, their sound, their everything, they put in their name (D.C. = "Dublin City"). In the time since releasing A Hero's Death, however, all of the members of the band have moved out of Dublin for London. The mixed feelings of leaving the city, coupled with their experiences of being Irish outside of Ireland, fueled Skinty Fia, another Irish phrase -- an expletive -- they learned via drummer Tom Coll's grandmother. “I think the expression probably originally refers to the extinction of the Irish giant deer and there's this inevitability to this deer's damnation, which is what we're trying to put across,” Chatten told Vice. “It connotes the idea or the image of the boys in Pinocchio. This half-breed kind of thing: what it feels like to be Irish in London.” The album cover, a striking photo of a deer inside a house, underlines the feeling of being somewhere you don't belong.
Even if you aren't aware of the specific lyrical genesis of Skinty Fia, the sense of unease is palpable. The shouty punk rippers that epitomized their debut, Dogrel, have given way to dark, textured guitars more akin to early-'80s postpunk (The Sound, The Chameleons) filtered through late-'90s UK alt-rock and dance music, with chunky basslines and increasingly adventurous drumming, making for music that is both expansive and claustrophobic.
Likewise, Chatten's vocal style has become more nuanced and musical, while still still maintaining a brooding edge -- it just feels more internalized now instead of shouting to the masses. Chatten's delivery is melodious even on droning songs like Skinty Fia's hypnotic title track, with words rolling off his tongue in a constant stream, a patter that's as much a rhythmic instrument as anything else. On songs like the obsessive "I Love You" and "How Cold Love Is," you can almost hear his characters pacing in circles, pleading to someone who isn't there, singing "And if there was sunshine - it was never on me."
"Skinty Fia" is the closest the album comes to dance music -- in a Primal Scream XTRMNTR kind of way -- and is also vying for best song on the album. With its driving bassline, industrial clanging, bursts of razorwire guitar and Chatten's awesome vocal, it's like Happy Mondays covered by Tricky and is dying to be remixed (maybe Soulwax can have a go like they did with "A Hero's Death"). The album is at its best on tracks with a prominent beat: the syncopated, two-chord groove of "Jackie Down the Line," the dreamy, nostalgic trip through London's nightlife of "Roman Holiday," and the seething, ominous and dubby "Big Shot."
Skinty Fia also breaks tradition from their first two albums by ending things not with a tender ballad but the loudest, noisiest song on the record. It finds the song's lead, be it Chatten on a character he's created, at his most vulnerable and pathetic, in the throes of a messy relationship. "I’ll be your dog in the corner / I will light your cigarette" he cries while a maelstrom of guitars circle like storm clouds. And though they're a band known for their love of Ireland's many famous poets, it's named for a Russian author, "Nabokov." Chatten and the rest of Fontaines D.C. may still be wrestling with a sense of identity but their restless spirit and desire not to do the same thing twice is, so far, serving them well.
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