Afro-Celt Sound System's James McNally has gotten used to his group's albums being stocked in a different department at every record store, from world to new age to dance and electronic. But whatever

Afro-Celt Sound System's James McNally has gotten used to his group's albums being stocked in a different department at every record store, from world to new age to dance and electronic. But whatever the classification, the genre-jumping U.K.-based collective is primed to raise its international profile to new heights with Real World's June 19 release of "Volume 3: Further in Time."

The album, the Afro-Celts' third, is the follow-up to 1999's "Volume 2: Release," which hit No. 6 on the Billboard Top World Albums chart and has sold 105,000 units in the U.S., according to SoundScan. The 6-year-old group -- comprising multi-instrumentalists McNally and Simon Emmerson along with Iarla O'Lionaird (vocals) and Martin Russell (engineer/programmer) -- produced the set over the past year at Redchurch, a basement studio in London.

"Further in Time" is truly difficult to categorize, as it draws on a diverse roster of some 20 additional musicians and vocalists, among them vocalist/kora player N'Faly Kouyate. That's not to mention star-studded guest vocal turns from Real World chief Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, and Irish vocalist Pina Kollars. "When You're Falling," the track on which Gabriel handles lead vocals, was the top debut (at No. 8) on the Billboard sister publication Airplay Monitor's Triple A chart earlier this month; it's No. 5 this week.

The group's Celtic roots shine through on such tracks as "Lagan" and the Kollars-sung "Go On Through," while the manic energy of world dance culture puts a charge into opener "North" and the propulsive "Collussus." Other highlights include the Middle Eastern-tinged "Life Begin Again," featuring a haunting vocal turn by Plant and Welsh vocalist Julie Murphy.

McNally credits the continuing emergence of Kouyate as a main contributor in bringing the African end of the group's sound to the forefront. "We felt the last album's African element wasn't as strong as it could have been," he says. "N'Faly had become a new member, and that was his first album. This time, he's much closer to the way we work and brought much more to the table than we could have ever imagined."

Just as Sinead O'Connor's guest spot on the last album's title track helped the Afro-Celts get their collective feet in the listening public's door, the appearance of such luminaries as Gabriel and Plant will likely be a major catalyst for the fortunes of "Further in Time." Plant was brought into the fold by percussionist Johnny Kalsi, who had worked with him on a variety of past projects.

"I heard the song, and right away I was attracted to it," Plant explains. "The amount of thought they put into it -- I'm afraid it leaves me staggered. There's so much stuff going on." McNally remains somewhat awestruck himself by Plant's contribution. "It was a fantastic meeting of the spirits," he says. "It was a very powerful experience."

Gabriel -- absent from U.S. pop airwaves since a live version of "Red Rain" charted in 1994 -- says the pressure was off during his collaboration with the group, but he admits, "I was a bit worried because I'm always behind with my own projects and take any diversion possible!"

Of "When You're Falling," Gabriel says, "The song was very loose and relaxed. There were a couple of places where we were just fooling around, like at the end, trying to build up different harmonies in an a cappella style, and in the middle section, which was improvised. It was a lot of fun to sing and play keyboards on, so what I thought might be hard work turned out to be a real pleasure."

Gabriel appears in the videoclip for "When You're Falling," directed by Adam Berg (the Cardigans, a-ha) and due to hit video outlets in early July. Along the lines of a remix of "Release" -- which hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart -- a more dance-friendly remix of "When You're Falling" was prepared by Leftfield's Adam Ren and will be included on the original track's commercial single.

"We're very attuned to the culture of remixes, and we know the importance of them," McNally says. "We will probably do a complete remix album, where we can really go for it."

And as electrifying as "Further in Time" can be, McNally stresses that the real fun begins onstage. "We don't just sit behind mikes," he says. "There's lots of solos and moments where it breaks down to just the sound system. It looks complicated, and you get pretty visually dazzled."

KMTT Seattle music director Shawn Stewart, whose station has been one of the Afro-Celts' biggest North American supporters, can attest to this. "The band had played some transcendent shows at [the Seattle area] WOMAD [USA festival]," she says. "It's like nothing you've ever experienced before. People with two left feet find themselves in this ecstatic state, dancing for hours."

Gabriel will join the Afro-Celts at this year's WOMAD USA festival, set for July 29 in Seattle. He will also be on hand for a July 26 taping of "The Late Show With David Letterman." Before WOMAD, the group will hit a handful of European festivals, such as Belgium's Werchter festival (July 1) and London's Essential festival (July 15).

Afro-Celt Sound System will then return to North America for one-off gigs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, Ore., as well as three opening dates (Aug. 7-8, 10) for Dave Matthews Band in Canada. A full North American tour is in the works for the fall.

Real World has teamed with the Borders Books & Music chain to make available an exclusive, limited-edition version of "Further in Time," bundled with a second CD containing a remix of the last album's "Eireann" and a live performance of the track "Mandrake." Two contests, one sponsored by Amazon.com and the other by EMI Music Distribution, will send a lucky fan to see the band at WOMAD.

The album itself is enhanced with a hyperlink to the Real World Web site, allowing users to access software to create their own remixes of the track "Collossus." The video for "When You're Falling" will also be available at the site. The Afro-Celts' own Web site (afrocelts.com) is streaming the entire album and will eventually house video and live audioclips.

Although the challenge of taking such hard-to-classify music to the next level is daunting, the strong pre-release buzz for the new album has McNally excited. "We're just catching our breath," he says. "We couldn't have imagined this when we sat down to start this record. We're completely blown away."

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