Saint Sister: Shape of Silence review – Atmosfolk to see you through the wee hours

Shape of Silence
    
Artist: Saint Sister
Genre: Alternative
Label: Self-released

There was always something a little different about Saint Sister. When the Northern Irish duo first arrived on the scene in 2014, it wasn't just Gemma Doherty's electric harp that made them stand out from the crowd. She and bandmate Morgan MacIntyre soon hit upon a formula of otherworldly harmonies, and their distinctive musical style – dubbed "atmosfolk" – was unquestionably out of step with most of their peers.

Formed when both were students at Trinity College Dublin – MacIntyre, who had previously performed as a solo artist was studying history and politics, while Doherty was immersed in a composition degree – they hit it off as friends at the tail-end of their respective courses, forming Saint Sister after joining forces as members of the illustrious Trinity Orchestra.

On the back of several promising EPs and singles that have clocked up millions of Spotify plays (2015's four-track EP Madrid was particularly successful on the streaming platform), the Belfast/Derry natives' debut album is as accomplished as anything you'll hear this year. Shape of Silence, produced by their fellow Trinity Orchestra alumnus (and current Hozier band leader) Alex Ryan, entwines eerie folk with minimalist electronica out in careful doses – the balance on these 12 songs not tipped too far in either direction at any point. While they have previously cited composers like Steve Reich and John Adams as influences on their early work, this collection nods to contemporary peers such as James Blake, evoking a similar late-night, listen-in-the-dark feel.

Given that they’re a female folk duo dealing in the atmospheric, Smoke Fairies are perhaps another obvious parallel to draw – but there is an undoubted kinship to be found in the dreamier end of the English band’s catalogue, too.


With such an emphasis placed on how Saint Sister sound, you might imagine that the lyric sheet of Shape of Silence suffers – yet this is where Doherty and MacIntyre excel, with the album cleverly documenting the painful crumbling of a relationship as the track list progresses. The early track Twin Peaks buzzes with a lovelorn optimism, its gently galloping pop beat embracing the glistening zing of harp as imagery of lazy, lolling early-twentysomething days unfurl. Later, the sombre Corpses signals trouble in paradise with the line "never thought that when you built our home, you'd make it out of bones / Darling, one of us should go" and references to how its protagonist has suffered as she has "tried to fix you".

The clattering, rhythm-heavy twitch of Half-Awake sees Doherty opine "Why is it so hard to love me?" and complain that "You only love me either when you're half awake, or out of your mind on whatever you take". By the time solemn closing track The Mater rolls around, however, an unsteady peace has been made with the situation – or at least a sense of closure brought about – as they sigh "I just wish we'd laughed in time, that's all".

True, there are occasions when further comparisons with the likes of Enya are unavoidable – most notably on The Beginning and the mystical Tír Eile – but since when is that such a bad thing? Kate Bush also creeps in on the quirky, funky thud of Steady, while even the spirit of Lana Del Rey's eerier creations gusts through these songs from time to time. Despite their myriad influences, however, Saint Sister have crafted a beautifully spellbinding wee-hours collection of songs that are very much their own.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times