It seems odd to describe a record as polite and well mannered, but in essence that's what much of the material on Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts' fourth full length studio offering boils down to. That's not to say it's predictable or un-ambitious, it just doesn't reach the potential it promises. Conflict Tourism is a very traditional Celtic Folk album at its core. I had hoped for something with roots in the protest songs that have elevated the genre to new heights in the past. Instead these songs rely heavily on traditional themes that shine with the arrangements they are afforded, but they're not really telling me anything I didn't already know about modern Folk.
Perhaps it's the album title that is the misleading thing. Conflict Tourism brings to mind a dissection of the modern political landscape, especially in the Middle East. Instead the duo uses it as a loose container to document their protagonist's inner conflicts. It's a nice idea, but it also feels somewhat myopic, these songs don't really play to the possibilities the title offers. As you'd expect the somewhat exotic rhythms of the mandolin and handclaps featured on 'Warmonger' evoke some of this potential, but it feels like too little too late after the preceding nine songs.
The album actually gets off to a great start with the highlight of the record sat proudly as the opening salvo. 'Cecilia' doesn't really owe a debt to Simon & Garfunkel, this is an original composition, but all those muted mandolin strums, the jarring percussion, multi-tracked harmonies, and allusions to "friendly fire" elevate this above a traditional Folk jaunt. The inner conflict of the central character certainly lives up to the album title. Whilst not feeling laboured, it is adventurous and challenging. Similarly 'Stumble On The Seam' packs a real punch as the duo realise a perfect union of Folk and Stadium Rock. The guitars underline a desire to push the boundaries of what's acceptable on this kind of record, the effort pays off with great results, but almost instantaneously the album seems to apologise for its ambition by reverting to a vocal led lament on 'Balance/Imbalance'.
While it would be easy to dismiss the material amongst the occasional high points, it's not that simple. The contribution of musicians including Bonnie Raitt's bassist James Hutchinson help to craft a rich sound associated with a full band as opposed to a duo. However it's the reliance on traditional themes ('Peggy Alrey' or 'Jack O' Lantern') that ground the album in familiar Folk compositions that don't push the album to greater heights, no matter how technically gifted the players actually are. An example is 'Peter Pan' which suffers under the melancholy presentation it's given. Lyrically the song could soar, but there feels like little room for the youthful exuberance that's waiting to bubble to the surface. Instead it feels very restrained and a little underwhelming.
All of this sounds like Conflict Tourism lacks any charm or invention. It doesn't, taken as an example of modern Folk music; it stands as a great example of what is possible during its brief flashes of excellence. As a whole it's a mixed bag that may make more sense in a live setting. In the studio though there's a sense that these songs may loosely relate to the album title, but only as extended family. Gilmore & Roberts may consider themselves tour guides amongst the pinnacles of what the Folk genre can offer, in reality though you seem to spend more time on the bus than actually seeing the sights.
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