A concept album in four movements based around the infamous 1913 Lockout in Dublin? If it doesn’t exactly sound like easy listening or a drivetime classic in the making to you, perhaps you aren’t familiar with The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock. If any band is capable of weaving one of the most significant events in Ireland’s socio-political history into a spellbinding, engaging narrative and driving the message home with a dynamic soundtrack, it’s the Dublin quintet.
Indeed, Spook of the Thirteenth Lock – who take their name from a poem about a "haunted canal lock" – have been one of the most underrated bands in the country for several years, quietly going about their business yet delivering fiercely original music in steady increments. Take their second album, 2012's The Brutal Here and Now, for example. A trad-rock-folk-kraut hybrid of English, Irish and even Italian, it set them out as the progeny of bands like Planxty but with a boundless lust for the contemporary.
The Allen Blighe-led band have taken a turn for the political with their more recent material. This particular project has been in the works for several years but follows on from their last release, the 1916-themed EP The Bullet in the Brick, which brought stories from the Rising to life in a similarly engaging way. For Lockout, the band expanded to an 18-piece "electric guitar orchestra" inspired by avant-garde composer Glenn Branca's audacious experiments, but here those extra instruments contribute to volume and intensity, rather than a surfeit of noise for the sake of it.
The subject matter, meanwhile, undoubtedly has a tendency to be heavy. Each movement comprises stories of the battle against exploitative working conditions led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly's ITGWU, which left thousands of workers suffering food shortages for six months. The scene is set early on when we hear how "The children are shivering/ The children are gaunt and thin" before Larkin urges workers to "Take control of your lives and destiny". Later, there is an undeniable bleakness to stories of tenements collapsing and smothering young children in the rubble, and of police brutality against civilians who had come to watch Larkin speak. The Batons is one of the most intense passages of the entire album, a siren-like guitar riff underlining the frantic, panicked ambience.
As melancholic and downbeat as the subject matter gets, however, the band make sure that not all hope is completely lost. Blighe's passionate telling of Larkin's rousing mobilisation of the workers – particularly on A Storm Driven Wave – is genuinely goosebump-inducing as the narrator recounts Larkin's charisma and awe-inspiring demeanour: "I realised I was in the presence of something I had never come across before; some great primeval force, rather than a man", he says as the crash of cymbals and a tremulous guitar riff builds to a cacophonic climax. Musician Katie Kim joins Blighe on the lilting Suffrage, which recounts Countess Markievicz and the Suffragettes' efforts to feed the hungry at Liberty Hall, and The Decade of Centenaries provides a suitably brisk-paced finale while asking, "Is there any hope for Ireland?"
Amidst the wide-spanning and ambitious storytelling, however, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock’s aptitude as musicians should not be overlooked. Pairing the soundtrack – be it the shimmer of scene-setting guitar, the trad-folk rumble of the ordinary man’s tale, the light, toe-tappy cadence of a gentle interlude or Blighe’s stoic vocal as he becomes another character in the fascinating narrative, they prove themselves masterful musical storytellers. From start to finish, a remarkable piece of work.