SYR Celtic Rock by Erin Rado
At the recent Tucson Celtic Festival and Highland Games, I had the awesome experience of rocking out to the Saturday night performance by SYR.
This Celtic Rock band from Columbia, South Carolina is amazing. Taking inspiration from Celtic history, stories and myths, SYR (pronounced sire) creates powerful songs with themes of battle, love and victory. Each is inspiring and celebrates the rich heritage of the Celtic people in a contemporary style. SYR’s reputation for high-energy performances has made the band a popular attraction for many Celtic festivals and events. Indeed, it was a head-banging time to be had!
Front man Kyle MacCallum founded SYR on the belief that his Celtic heritage could be brought to life with a unique musical voice. The rest of the ensemble is filled out by Kyle’s sister, Laurel MacCallum (vocals & percussion), Kelly Vance (bass), Greg Vance (drums), Ben Campbell (guitar), and Worth Lewallen (fiddle).
From their humble beginnings at pubs and small local festivals, SYR has been welcomed to perform at The Celtic Classic (PA), Longs Peak ScotFest (CO), Niagara Celtic Fest (NY), The New Hampshire Highland Games, Tucson Celtic Fest (AZ), Savannah Irish Fest (GA), Tartan Day South (SC), Asheville Celtic Festival (NC), Irish Fest Camden (SC) and many others.
SYR has also been honored to perform alongside such established groups as Albannach, Glengarry Bhoys, Seven Nations, Enter the Haggis, The Byrne Brothers, The Tannahill Weavers, Steel City Rovers, and many more.
Now SYR prepares to release their much anticipated third album, Sentinel. Fortunately, SYR was kind enough to send me an advanced copy, which you can now hear on Celtic Rock Radio. So how about we dive a little deeper into Sentinel and discover more about SYR.
Erin: Hey Kyle. First, thanks for sitting for an interview. Your show at Tucson was off the charts. You had the crowd right where you wanted them, and we all just loved you. So let’s chat about Sentinel.
Kyle: Sure. I’m happy to be here, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the show.
Erin: As you know, I had the opportunity to listen to Sentinel before I saw you live. The first thing I noticed was how the music strikes a primal beat. It makes me think of ancient campfires and ritual dances. In the opening song, Revenant, your voice fills my mind. You have such a clear tone. And the chorus on this song just lifts me away into a musical flight.
Kyle: Thanks. We work hard on creating our sound, and each of our albums tells a story. We felt that Revenant was a good way to start things off.
Erin: I love the intro to the song, Tir n’ Aill. It’s everything I expect in a Celtic rock piece. A few bars of a single-string instrument before the full band kicks in. Then Laurel takes over, and her voice is so lyrical.
Kyle: I wanted to give Laurel more to sing, so I wrote more of an upbeat piece for her with Tir n’ Aill. Ben and I are singing backup vocals on this one.
Erin: For Specters, I like the strong intro. This is a piece I will just sit back and let you take me where you want to go. It’s a mello, yet pulsing, rock tune… with a bit of an edge here and there.
And then comes Sentinel, which definitely has that traditional Celtic vibe. But it’s not long before the guitar underscores it, as does the percussion, and before I realize it, I’m listening to a great song with ancient roots.
Kyle: Well, I wrote both the drum and guitar music for Sentinel, and I think they really work well together. The song helps you “feel”.
Erin: Did I mention that the drummer really shows his stuff on this piece? He doesn’t overpower the vocals, but the piece would be lacking without his work. Sentinel has a complex cadence. It must have been tricky to write and perform. Am I hearing heavy metal influence?
Kyle: Yes, you are hearing a heavy metal influence because I merged Metal and Celtic in Sentinel. During my teenage years, I played with a death metal band as lead guitar and vocals (and screams). I grew to appreciate the catharsis of a song, and having a background death metal gave me experience in complex drum cadences.
Erin: The Painted Ones starts with a good bodhran line, so I know something awesome is coming. The intro builds like a battle march. It’s dangerous, and I’m on the edge of my seat. It almost reminds me of action thriller score until the fiddle and tin whistle take over the melody. Then it’s Celtic dangerous! Great instrumental.
For Baobhan Sith, the story of this ballad gives me goose bumps. You’re singing about a guy who’s clearly wandering into danger. The chorus is so haunting. Brrrr…. There’s nothing more to say about this piece except that everyone simply has to listen to it and get swept away by the story. Anyone who knows anything about the Sith (pronounced Shee) knows that the main character of this story should have run away as soon as he had the chance!
Kyle: You got it. The character in this story is a hunter who has left the safety of the sheiling (pronounced sheele), his little hut home. He listens to the siren song of a Sith and wanders to it, almost against his will. But the Sith are Celtic Fay vampires who drain their victims dry, so when she bids him, “Darling, close your eyes” it’s not going to end well for him.
Erin: Lay of the Ashes is another upbeat Celtic rock ballad. Your voice almost has a warning as you sing the story. Lots of forward energy in this piece. It makes me head-bang a bit. I love the instrumental bridge as well. It balances the vocals.
Kyle: It was hard for me to get through this piece in the studio. It was a song about growing and changing, and it was also a COVID piece. A “Lay” is an octo-syllabic verse, which this song isn’t. But the story is of a tree that’s dying because it’s all dried out. Along comes a forest fire and the tree is terrified, but once the tree catches fire it realizes that dying in the flames is what it is meant to do.
Erin: Idistaviso has a sound that doesn’t match the rest of the album, which is very interesting. It has kind of a late 1800’s story ballad feel, like an Irish Lament, a Civil War Lament, or maybe even a Celtic “Old West” cautionary tale.
Kyle: I knew it didn’t fit the overall album. The title came from a battle in Roman-era Germany, and the main character’s brother fights against him. It’s a song about the loss of brotherhood and is a somewhat ‘folksy ballad’ telling of an ancient story. In a way, the song is meant to sneak listeners into Celtic music, with both a Celtic and an Appalachian sound.
Erin: Oran Na Gaillinn – ah, a dulcimer and a flute. Now that’s a great way to start any Celtic song, but knowing SYR, this one wouldn’t stay traditional, and in a few bars and the full band goes for it. Great sound on this piece. It’s a classic stage song.
Kyle: Oran Na Gaillinn was a throwback to our first self-titled album. It is a hopeful song about the tempest into which we are born. There is no shelter from the storm. You can’t escape, and the storm will transform you no matter how hard you try to avoid your fate. It’s a union of iron and wood, the Celts against the Romans.
Erin: Albion II is sung in Gaelic, so naturally I wasn’t able to follow the story. But it also has the same full sound as Oran Na Gaillinn. Great instrumentals amid the vocals.
Kyle: We actually had a Gaelic Instructor, Jason Bond, help us with the translation.
Erin: Legacy is interesting. It has a very engaging cadence. The band really needs to watch what it’s doing so that no one falls out of sync. I’ll bet that death metal background helped keep the band together, right?
Kyle: Right. It’s a very rhythmic piece, and it’s based on the poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly.
Erin: I love the sense of motion in To Avalon. It again calls me to follow where the song goes. Quite driving and adventurous. Really great drum work. This is an awesome instrumental to finish the album. This is definitely the type of song you want to play when blasting down the freeway.
Kyle: To Avalon was an experiment in timing. I wanted to see if I could ‘get away with it’ because it’s a single cadence for most of the song, which may not be engaging. But then other pieces come together to create a song that really pulses.
Erin: So, how do you come by your sound?
Kyle: I grew up with Celtic soundtracks. They are designed to make you focus on the tasks at hand or on the emotion and feeling of a scene. After I left the death metal band, I played pub music in the early years of SYR, but I got a bit burned out and left. After a while, though, I restarted SYR with a focus on the music I liked to play. Our first album was a trial, but with the second, The Winter King, we found the sound we were looking for.
Erin: How do you compose songs that evoke such emotion?
Kyle: I write songs that create a unique place and time, and I’m always looking for something different. If I have a chord progression in my head, I play around with it until I find the right combination, which can be both primal and archaic. Foggy Pictish hills imagery, rugged highlands, deep forest. They all inspire me. I write with a picture in my mind of where a song takes place.
Erin: So do you compose most of SYR’s songs?
Kyle: Yes, though I don’t want to put all the focus on me. I write all the pieces in a song and then source them out to the band members. They add their own flourishes, and everything comes together when we play live. We record when we’re all happy with the way the initial performances go. I like recording before touring. That way people are surprised with the direction an album takes.
Erin: Since your work is so thematic, do you consider your albums ‘concept’ albums?
Kyle: Not really, but each song in an album takes place in a world where listener can experience the depth of the world. It’s a balance to evoke a primal feeling while giving listeners a good experience.
Erin: So what’s next for SYR?
Kyle: A lot of festivals have rebooked us, and we’re just going to pretend that 2020 didn’t exist. We’re doing highland games and theater shows. Sentinel hasn’t been released yet, but it will be soon. A couple of the songs have already been released as singles.
And here’s a spoiler. 6-7 songs were cut from Sentinel because they weren’t ready, so they’ll be used for the next album. The Winter King had a winter theme. Sentinel has a summer theme, and the next album will be more autumnal. We like releasing albums in 3’s.
SYR Prepares for Release of Third Album with New Single, “Tir n’Aill”
With the online release of their newest single, Tir n’Aill, SYR has more than quadrupled their Spotify fanbase in a matter of days. The song’s companion YouTube lyric video journeys through mystical and mysterious lands, and heralds the imminent release of their much anticipated third album, Sentinel.
This article first appeared in the December issue of Celtic Nations Magazine.