This quintet takes its name from the ninth-century Viking who founded a great dynasty in Ireland and Scotland, which would seem quite appropriate for a band that has ties, musical and otherwise, to both places. And listening to them, there might be a temptation to say that Ímar’s music displays the ferocity attributed to those Norse warriors. But that’s going a little overboard: It takes prodigious control and skill to play with the intensity Ímar does and sound as high-quality as they do. And it’s clear that these guys have all that and more.
“Avalanche” is the second album by the band, whose members – Adam Brown (bodhran, guitar), Ryan Murphy (uilleann pipes, flute, whistle), Tomás Callister (fiddle), Adam Rhodes (bouzouki) and Mohsen Amini (concertina) – are from Ireland and various parts of the UK, including the Isle of Man, and now based in Glasgow. They originally met as teenagers through Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (a pretty darn good endorsement for CCÉ) and have played with highly praised bands like Talisk, Cara and RURA. Murphy’s pipes, by their very nature, are the most conspicuous melodic feature of Ímar, but Amini’s flat-out phenomenal concertina-playing is the sinew of the band – which is not to overlook Callister’s energetic fiddling. Brown’s bodhran, meanwhile, helps power things along but rides ably along in the sidecar on the more moderate-tempo numbers, and Rhodes’ bouzouki bolsters Ímar’s rhythmic heft.
Most of the material on “Avalanche” is self-composed or by other contemporary musicians, and while solidly in the traditional vein, a modern mindset is discernible here: harmony, syncopation, improvisatory passages or bridges, such as on “White Strand,” and rock-style grooves (albeit with acoustic instruments). If you’re looking for the characteristic Ímar track, try “Rambling,” a robust trio of slides that climaxes with “Dilly Dilly” (hopefully not a reference to a certain beer commercial) and a pulse-quickening variation in the B part executed by Amini and Murphy. Or “Blue,” a threesome of reels that scarcely lets up for a second (listen to the changing rhythm pattern on the middle tune, “Spiders”). Or the polka medley “Wise” – Brown and Rhodes are in particularly fine form here, and there is a lovely bit of harmony between Amini, Murphy and Callister during “John Creeney’s.”
Adding to the delights of “Avalanche” is the production of Donald Shaw, who in addition to some stints on electric piano put together arrangements for the string quartet that appears on various tracks. Greg Lawson and Fiona Stephens (violins), Rhoslyn Lawton (viola) and Sonia Cromarty (cello) provide strokes, counterpoints and fills that deepen and broaden without distracting from the core sound, such as on “White Strand,” the first of three successive tracks (along with “Afar” and “Setanta”) that showcase Ímar’s quieter, more lyrical persona.
There’s something satisfying about the album’s closing track, the traditional reels “Sally Reel/Dunrobin Castle/Dunmore Lasses.” It amounts to a we-know-from-whence-we-come statement by the band, reminding us (as if needed) that innovation and experimentation do not by definition sever the bond with tradition.