"OVERHEAD THE albatross, hangs motionless upon the air, and deep beneath the rolling waves, in labyrinths of coral caves, an echo of a distant time, comes willowing across the sand, and everything is green and submarine."
As rock lyrics go, the opening lines of Pink Floyd's epic track, 'Echoes', is among the most haunting and poetic. It's first three words are also the moniker for one of Ireland's most ambitious bands, whose music, like the Floyd's, is never less than wide screen, cinematic in its scope, heavily atmospheric and ambient, and of course, epic.
Overhead, The Albatross - Luke Daly, Stevie Darragh, Vinny Casey (guitars ), Ben Garrett (drums ), David Prendergast (keyboards ), and Joe Panama (bass ) - are on the crest of a (rolling ) wave, following the release of their debut album, Learning To Growl in May. It has been showered with critical acclaim ("monumental - The Last Mixed Tape; "staggering sonic declarations" - The Irish Times ), and they will perform it at Strange Brew in the Róisín Dubh on Thursday August 11 at 9pm.
Reviews of Learning To Growl were almost always accompanied by the term "long awaited", a reference to the fact it was originally slated for release in early 2015, and in total, took nearly five years to make. Indeed, the creation of the album proved to be as epic as the music within, and it began with a journey that took the band more than half-way across continental Europe.
"There are six of us in the band and everybody has their own thing," Luke Daly tells me during our Tuesday afternoon conversation. "We have jobs and hobbies, we're all very active outside the band, so we knew that to give the album our best shot, it would be good to get away. We thought about somewhere else in Ireland, but we knew we'd be tempted to go back to Dublin to our girlfriends and to parties, so we thought, let's go as far as we could possibly afford."
The band initially looked at France, but that proved too expensive. They then discovered a house in Písek, in the Czech Republic, about 90 minutes south of Prague. "It's in a forest and was built in the 1920s, it has six bedrooms and we got it for a steal for three months," says Luke. The isolation was the perfect environment in which to compose.
"We moved all our gear over there from our studio in Ireland," says Luke. "It was a 36 hour drive. There, we were free from the pressure to write we would have felt here. At home, we would have had to arrange to meet up, if we could, once a week for four to five hours, and then there would be the pressure to try and come up with something in that four to five hours. Being in Písek we could write at our leisure. As soon as we got there, we wrote about three-quarters of 'Telekenetic Forest Guard', and just kept going."
Písek was a great place to write, but not record. Dissatisfied with the sound of the recordings made there, OTA returned to Dublin to begin recording, but, Luke admits, "other life stuff got in the way".
"The album became the white elephant in the room, it seemed like our own Chinese Democracy," he says. "We'd hang out and wouldn't mention it. We felt as if it was a climb up this insane mountain, we were only half-way up, or even still at the bottom, but once we organised ourselves things started to move quicker."
Learning To Growl features 25 musicians, including violinist Leah Wright (who also joins the band live ), her mother, the cellist Una Wright, and members of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and RTÉ National Concert Orchestra. Working with them saw OTA's ideas explode and ambition grow for just what they could do with the music written in the Czech Republic.
"None of us play trumpet or strings, but Leah helped us write those parts of the album," says Luke. "We could have found amateur musicians to help us, but so much time had been put into the album, and we had put a lot of money into it. We went into RTÉ and listening to these professional, classical musicians play sections we had written, it was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life when the bow hit the stings."
Asked why 'Echoes' opening line inspired the band's name, Luke notes: "Everybody in the band in a big Pink Floyd fan. Before the band was even formed Joe Panama had the name in his head, he liked the sound of it, but it's also a name that suits the kind of music we produce." However, Floyd is not the only inspiration at work. "We're heavily influenced by film scores and neo-classical composers," he adds.
Taken together, the music, its making, and inspiration, all sound unashamedly Prog-Rock. Would the band object to being described as such? "We get filed under Prog-Rock and Post-Rock," Luke replies. "They're not something we would call ourselves, but I'm not going to fall out with anyone for calling us that. We prefer to be called instrumental rock, but there are Prog elements in there."
The experience of composing and recording the album, and the band's long exploration for what they feel and regard as their signature sound and style, make Learning To Growl an apt title - this whole experience has been an extraordinary learning curve.
"It has been a journey," says Luke. "We started it in our twenties and some of us are in our thirties now. The title came from a text message from David Prendergast's dad, he said our music sounded like we were 'learning to growl'. Now that we've been through it once, we know what it's like. We said let's not put limitations on ourselves. That might have made it drag out, but we're delighted with the album."
In case anyone gets the impression OTA are chin stroking musos, think again. While they rightfully take their music seriously, the guys don't take themselves seriously, as shown by recent Twitter posts: "In fairness we're the softest lads in the world and if we get arrested it'll be for fighting with each other over how best to cook asparagus". Another post, in reference to next week's Róisín Dubh gig said: "Not too long at all before we're getting arrested at the Spanish Arch for something Luke does." Explain!
"The beauty is in the mystery," Luke replies. "I'm looking forward to getting arrested. We all got into asparagus only recently. We have debates about the best way to cook it - with butter and garlic is the favourite at the moment. We're really not boring guys, but we can get into a heated debate about how to cook asparagus."
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.