It's been just under three years since Villagers released one of the most eagerly-anticipated debut albums in Irish music history - and the Ivor Novello Award-winning, Mercury Prize and Choice Prize-nominated Becoming a Jackal MORE than justified the hype which preceded it. The record showcased Conor J O'Brien as both a dynamic songwriter and an innovative musician, and took the troubadour and his Villagers on a globe-trotting adventure. {Awayland}, set for release this coming Friday on Domino Records, undeniably has a hard act to follow - but if anyone is up to the challenge of topping their own modern-day masterpiece, it's O'Brien.

Lead single 'The Waves' was unleashed last October and paved the way for a deviation in style from Villagers on {Awayland}. Subtle blips reminiscent of Morse code unfold into lush electronic soundscapes, with a hypnotic beat simmering underneath, all leading towards a furiously grandiose climax - and lyrically, it's one of O'Brien's finest efforts to date, upping the ante in terms of masterful intensity. 'Nothing Arrived' is earmarked as the second single to tie in the with album's release date, and for good reason - in contrast with 'The Waves', its piano and acoustic guitar driven melody is strongly rooted in the memory of the debut, but with added flourishes and a euphoric culmination which allows O'Brien to traverse the upper tiers of his impressive range. Excellent calling-cards for the record these singles are, but it's in delving deeper into {Awayland}'s charms that its mind-blowingly brilliant musical treasures are discovered.

'Earthly Pleasures' is, quite simply, epic. It's hard to believe that it clocks in at just over four minutes considering the magnitude of what's unfolding within - the ominously spoken vocals of O'Brien deliver stellar storytelling, concise character creation, and vivid imagery throughout the verses, and the choruses further the musical voyage against a backdrop of frantic driving percussion and the soaring guitar riffs of Tommy McLaughlin. 'The Bell' possesses a similar other-worldly charm, bleak in its brilliance, the full scale of the piano at play to heighten the mighty mood of the song. 'Grateful Song' is misleading in its tender unveiling - more explorations in instrumentation as strings are teamed with mandolin over rumbling percussion, sweeping the melody along until the moment it all kicks in and the song transforms into exquisite anthemic refrains.

But of course Villagers being Villagers, they don't need to throw every bell and whistle at a track to make it great - the lone acoustic guitar of symbolic album-opener 'My Lighthouse' accompanies the complex melodies and multi-part harmonies to perfection, and the instrumental title track '{Awayland}' proves that they are not wholly reliant on the lyrical and vocal prowess of O'Brien in order to craft magnificent music. It's the heart-wrenching sentiments of 'In A New Found Land You Are Free' that steal the show, however - tragedy permeates the poignancy of the song, the delicate piano-led melody haunting and O'Brien's hushed tones devastatingly beautiful.

{Awayland} is an astounding album. It may deviate dramatically in style but it is ambitious and innovative without sacrificing the authentic Villagers sound, offering surprises at every juncture whilst captivating continually. The first 'must-have' album of 2013 - mesmerising, from beginning to end.

Review by Elaine Buckley