The ever-evolving Mànran continue to deliver their solid wedges of rock-infused traditional hues, this time with female vocals to balance the thrust of energetic instrumental play.
Release Date: 22nd October 2021
Label: Mànran Records (Bandcamp)
Format: CD / Digital
Can it really be over ten years since this band of fresh-faced wee boys were seen striding off the walkway, ferry since departed, instruments in cases, ready to slay another island audience? Such was the message the cover of their debut gave, not least as they already had their first single enter the top 40, if briefly, the first Gaelic language song of the 21st century so to do. That single, Latha Math’ sealed their purpose, to be a determinedly rock band who just happened to sing in Gaelic and to play a fair few traditional instruments. Trad-rock, they call it. With the percussion on most Scottish folk-derived musics tending to err on the side of polite, restraint the more usual frame of reference, here the rhythm section, and from the start, were to be taking no prisoners, and wanted everyone to know that.
Over the next few years, they sought to conquer the world with their enthusiastic take on Celtic rock, mixing and melding the medium with their multi-pronged front line encompassing pipes, both highland and uilleann, flute, fiddle, accordion, whistle, guitars and vocal. Following the eponymous debut, second album The Test was brought to transatlantic and antipodean audiences, the tour memorably filmed, in 2013, for a BBC Alba documentary film, the album, the tour and the film all winning them awards and gaining them friends worldwide. It was four years before An Là Dà, their third release, followed, with, now, another four to wait for this.
The band has not been idle between times, the band and music developing as new members have replaced others, widening the scope of their appeal. Whilst the, arguably, de facto leader and spokesperson of the band, accordionist Gary Innes remains, as does fiddler and highland piper Ewen Henderson, and the extravagantly bearded Ross Saunders on bass, newer members, Ryan Murphy (2012), who plays uilleann pipes and various woodwinds, and Mark Scobbie (2016), on drums, are here joined by two new members. Kim Carnie is a Gaelic singer with a solo career alongside, and whose “velvet voiced authority” (The Scotsman) has been compared with Eva Cassidy, and Aidan Moodie is an Orcadian singer and guitarist making waves since his ‘other’ band, Gnoss, broke through in 2019. Which has the roster at seven, allowing for an even greater battery of sound to break forth than ever previously.
Ùrar, which means fresh or flourishing, each of which certainly apply to the band, opens with the already released single, Ailean, which starts with an ominous bass and percussion rumble, ahead of Carnie’s sensuous tones weaving in. A fiddle soars overhead, chopping back and forth, before a flute enters, changing simultaneously the tempo. The build continues, with the male voices and accordion, eventually the Irish pipes, adding their mood to the overall sense of foreboding: beauty within the storm. Aptly, as the song is about shipwreck, the singer grieving for her father, husband and three brothers, all lost at sea.
Followed by Crossroads, an instrumental that brings to mind the mighty Moving Hearts at their peak, firmly establishing the band are back, in gear, on form and ready. It is a terrific ensemble assault, with a song jointly by the two new members appearing next. Collaborating remotely during lockdown, Crow Flies is a song, in English, about how, when fear damages innocence, hope remains eternal; they say it better, I should add, the song led by a driving motorik beat that complements the gentler acoustic sway of the other instrumentation.
Back Tower, a duo set, sees the entry of Henderson’s bagpipes, for a tune that is all of a strident blast, underpinned by the crack rhythm section, who are fast becoming the stars of this outing. The atmosphere is triumphant, as befits a tune, commissioned of the piper and written, for a set of books about a Free Gaelic Republic(!) Segued into the end is a short port à beul that reminds how rousing that style can be, the whole band collecting around Carnie’s vocal with joy. That joy is maintained by ‘The Loop’, a trio of tunes, that showcases the many talents available to the band, demonstrating simultaneously how solid a unit they are in ensemble.
A change of mood, next, with the marvellously entitled Briogais, a sad ballad from the tradition. With the full title translated as”The Pompous Trousers”, it tells the tale about a pair of breeks so capacious in the rear that they could hold three. (Do Suggs and co. know of this?) Altogether lighter fare, it is led by acoustic guitar and Carnie’s vocal, ahead of the rest of the band, and shows off their more whimsical side. Which may be necessary, ahead of the slow-burning Foghar, a brooding song of loss, with menace in the undercurrent, pipes and echoed backing vocals like wraiths in the middle distance. Originally based on a prize-winning poem by Henderson, this is a richly evocative track, moody and menacing, definitely a highlight.
Keeping the styles ever on the move, Lahinch now has a flute-led melody that, as the rest of the band slot in, becomes beautiful and almost orchestral, ahead of breaking into a brisker pace, anchored by the ever reliant engine room of Saunders and Scobbie. Another Carnie song follows, with San Cristobal having an almost Americana feel, perhaps unsurprisingly, given it references the Mexican town. It features an electric piano as the mainstay, adding to the range of instruments already displayed here. Back then to some puirt, for Puirt Ùrar, the first part being a hypnotic swagger, before the backing musicians throw down a challenge to Carnie, and up the tempo. Voice is much percussion as melody in this style of Gaelic song, and she shows how well she is up to it, taking back the lead and notching it a further step up on the accelerator, toward the sudden conclusion.
All too soon we arrive at the close, Grioghair Crìdhe, an anthemic number that sways majestically, all lighters in the sky. From a slow piano start, one by one the band step in and up, abetting Carnie’s clear and keening voice. A fiddle solo, joined by uilleann pipes, more vocals, the men then adding a gradual vocal swell in the background. Glorious, and I can think of no better song to end any live performance.
So, in short, a tremendous album, their best yet, and one that should cement their pole position in the current renaissance of Scottish roots music. The maturity of the playing is astounding, and the new voices work wonders. With the material culled from many sources, within the band and without, with a fair nod from the Gaelic tradition, perhaps a special mention should go to Mischa MacPherson, whose name pops up consistently in the writing credits. Oh, and did I mention the rhythm section?
Here’s Ailean, the single and opening track from the album: