Check out any of Ímar’s social media over the last couple of months, and you’ll be left in no doubt as to their excitement as release day approaches for Awakening, the band’s third album. It’s also clear that the five-year gap since their last release Avalanche, dominated by the pandemic restrictions, had been a frustrating time for them. But now we’re hearing the music made when they were finally able to work together; it’s equally clear they’ve used the five years wisely, growing and maturing both individually and collectively. Awakening shows Ímar are back with a vengeance, producing music that is even more imaginative and adventurous than their first two albums.
While their debut album, Afterlight, was largely woven around traditional dance rhythms and melodies, the follow-up, Avalanche, featured more of their own material. Awakening, while keeping this mixture, places even more emphasis on the band’s own compositions. However, several of those have, in turn, been inspired by stories, locations and traditions from the band’s various home grounds. While all five are now based in Glasgow, their backgrounds encompass England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. In a departure from their previous album, Awakening doesn’t feature guest musicians. I guess they considered the instruments of the five band members more than sufficient to create the album’s intricate, energetic arrangements, and I’m certainly not about to argue with that.
The album opens with a rhythm from Adam Brown’s bodhrán alongside a casually strummed chord riff, probably also played by Adam wearing his other hat as the band’s guitarist. The pace, while far from sedentary, is Ímar in cruise mode. A melody line is introduced, first from Tomás Callister’s fiddle and gradually involving all the remaining band members, Ryan Murphy (flute, uilleann pipes and whistle), Adam Rhodes (bouzouki) and the unmistakeable Mohsen Amini on concertina. As the sound builds, so does the pace, along with changes in melody. Initially, the tune is one of Mohsen’s, Only Room for Mash, and this links to two pieces from Tom, The Penny Farthing and Heraghty’s, nods to two of the band’s favourite Glasgow watering holes. The set’s title, Bangers, makes the obvious link to Mohsen’s tune but is so appropriate as the set reaches its frenetic climax; it really is a banger of a track.
This opener is a great example of the high-octane fuel that has energised audiences worldwide, making Ímar one of the most sought-after folk festival bands. The majority of the album’s ten tracks provide ample further proof of the band’s ability to deliver their stirring, climactic brand of music and none more so than the final track, The Tree of Life. While that closer ensures anyone listening to the entire album will likely go away somewhat out of breath, scattered among the other tracks are three that allow glimpses of a far quieter, more reflective Ímar.
Waterhorse, another of Tom’s compositions, is one such number. Inspired by the glashtyn, a goblin from Manx folklore that sometimes appears as a sea-dwelling horse, its gentle rhythm gives time and space for the band to develop a musical fabric that interweaves concertina, flute, fiddle and eventually uilleann pipes. This is followed by Eoghainn’s, one of three tunes composed by Ryan, the other band compositions are all from either Mohsen or Tom. Unsurprisingly, Eoghainn’s prominently features Ryan’s uilleann pipes in a tune that retains its steady, gentle pace throughout. Its rhythm was specifically designed to help a friend of the band exercise neck muscles he’d injured in a car accident. The third glimpse of this gentle Ímar is Imagine a World. It was composed by Tom and features his fiddle developing a lyrical melody played over the gentlest of backgrounds. It cries out for the listener to come up with the best possible world they could imagine, and, for me, that would undoubtedly be one that included Ímar.
For recording expertise, the band turned to the much respected Andrea Gobbi at Glasgow’s GloWorm Recording while the mixing was in the safe hands of Scott Wood at his Oak Ridge Studios. If I had to single out just one quality in praise of this album, I’d pick the sheer joy they exhibit when playing music, a quality that infuses Awakening from start to finish. It’s a state of mind that keeps the musicians playing with other bands, Mohsen with Talisk, Adam Brown with Rura, Tom and Adam Rhodes with Mec Lir, and Ryan with Manran. But when all five come together as Ímar, they generate the extra energy that fires up their unique sound. The resulting music deftly passes their joy in making it over to the listener, leaving both band and listener with smiles on their faces and maybe just slightly out of breath.
The band have said their aim for Awakening was to revisit the “vibes of our debut album” after the more produced sound of their second. There’s no doubt in my mind they’ve succeeded splendidly while adding the polish that seven years of playing together brings.
Written by Johnny Whalley – 17 April, 2023