CD Review: Roger Doyle

Cover of Cool Steel Army by Roger Doyle

CD Review: Roger Doyle

Cool Steel Army / PsychoNavigation Records PSY 028

Cool Steel Army
PsychoNavigation Records PSY 028

A new album from Roger Doyle, and with it another change of label for the perpetually nomadic composer. That his newfound home, PsychoNavigation Records, is Dublin-based at least gives cause for cautious optimism for future continuity. In the, at first glance, unlikely union, Doyle, who, astonishing as it seems, reaches his 60th birthday this year, may well have found at last a home from home.

Launched in 2000, PsychoNavigation has quickly acquired a reputation for championing electronic and ambient music. That it takes obvious pleasure in adding Doyle – ‘the Godfather of Irish electronic music’ – to its catalogue, suggests an appropriate degree of respect. Interestingly enough, tracks from Cool Steel Army, the first offering from the partnership (and from Doyle’s earlier magnum opus, Babel) were given a first outing on a 2FM dance music programme in early February.

But while the thrashing metallic percussion that hammers relentlessly around an insistently garrulous piano in the twelve-minute-long title track wouldn’t be out of place alongside the likes of Aphex Twin, Supersilent and Autechre, it demands considerably more of the listener than that they merely dance to it (if, indeed, that would be at all possible). More tellingly, in its coruscating vitality it reveals other affinities – from Xenakis and dark electro to aggrotech and Debussy – even as it dissolves and bleeds away into the air like gravity into a black hole.

The piano is also at the core of Paavo’s Engagement, a response to Doyle’s son announcing his wedding plans. Built around a rippling, self-repeating phrase that transforms at regular intervals into now playful, now touching, now scolding commentaries, there’s a complex simplicity to this serialist-leaning piece, the various elements of which incrementally dot in Doyle’s emotional response to his son’s – and his own – rite of passage.

The main attraction is the first appearance on disc of Adolf Gébler, Clarinettist – the first of Doyle’s ‘cinema for the ear’ projects. Adapted by Carlo Gébler from his own memoir of his Bohemian-born grandfather, a first clarinettist with the Radio Éireann Studio Players in the late 1930s, Doyle’s setting is an intricately conceived soundtrack for orchestra, piano, female singer (Fionnuala Gill) and pre-recorded acted scenes relayed through a CD player.

Listened to on headphones, it acquires a necessary intimacy that, for all its intensely sculpted qualities, can be listened to as the best kind of radio drama. Something feels lost in the translation from stage, however, a sense of scale and the intricacy and hierarchy of Doyle’s densely plotted interweaving of individual elements, but not to the degree that it damages or dilutes what is here.

Reminding one of Doyle’s pioneering music-theatre work with Operating Theatre in the 1980s (a cherishable double-disc survey of which, complete with guest appearance by über rock star Bono, has just been issued on the New York-based Incunabulum label), Cool Steel Army may feel a touch too compromised by brute autobiography (Doyle’s and Gébler’s) but it is nonetheless jam-packed with ideas.

Published on 1 April 2009

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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