written by Martha Buckley 10 March, 2017
Glasgow-based band Ímar certainly seem to know their stuff. Collectively, they may be new to many readers, but the individual members have an impressive pedigree, with nine All-Ireland and eight All-Britain titles between them (not including the accolades of the other bands they are involved in, which include Talisk, RURA, Mànran, and Jamie Smith’s Mabon). Irish and Manx tunes characterise this first offering, Afterlight, which shows an impressive blend of enthusiasm and technical know-how in just short of 40 minutes.
The opening track, Into the Light, begins with a sparkling and fresh sound from the bouzouki, before moving into a fiddle and flute arrangement which has a more ‘traditional’ feel than what I initially expected, given their wide influences and connections. However, it’s not long before the concertina jumps in to add texture and a more contemporary depth of sound, and the album is off to a flying start.
After this, l’Air Mignonne was clearly designed to be a slower change of pace. The lush fiddle playing and simple style contribute to a more pop-influenced sound, a pleasant enough sound, although not their most impressive. The harmonies take a while to kick in, but the second tune (‘Luke Skywalker Walks on Sunshine’) provides a welcome change of pace as the band finds itself on firmer – and faster – ground. A high concertina passage provides a pleasant surprise towards the end of the set, where complex counter-rhythms and overlapping melodies come to the fore once again.
The Speckled Heifer is a track I defy anyone to listen to without tapping their feet. It’s a driven set, and the concertina is used to great effect to provide a sense of rhythm and texture. A genius moment when the rhythm drops out allows the pipes in particular to fly, and the virtuoso change into the third tune (written by band member Ryan Murphy), means that things go up another notch in both key and speed, which really made me smile. Three tracks in, and you know it’s an ability to play both fast and tight which will prove a defining characteristic of Ímar.
This ability is shown once again in Ashbury Slides. Slides can be tricky things, but here they come alive with solid technical ability, great rhythm changes, and a lush arrangement of background chords (‘The Night We Had the Port’ is a self-penned highlight). Sensitive production means that while the pipes are responsible for the bulk of the melody, they never dominate. Everyone gets a moment to shine, and you are reminded that these players have an impressive collection of solo awards between them.
It feels like the wheels are about to come off on Firebird, as hurtling pipes are foregrounded in a mostly Irish set that feels a little frantic. All this means that at the halfway point of the album, you could be forgiven for wanting a nice slow air to calm things down. What you get, however, is Happy Clappy, another speedy set of tunes, penned by band member Ryan Murphy and the celebrated tenor banjo player Damien O’Kane. The final tune is made for dancing to, and the whole thing has a positive vibe which, let’s face it, is only to be expected from the title of the track…
The pace continues with Full Orkney, where leaping sections allow the fiddle and flute to really show what they can do. Ímar’s mastery of rhythm is once again in evidence, and the concertina holds everyone together throughout the set. I’m a fan of a good mid-tune key change, and the second tune (Brendan McCarthy’s ‘Silver Shroud’) is a great example, where the flute gets some lovely lyrical passages.
Manx Plates delivers another fun change between tunes and some interesting melodies. The rich blend of backing chords contributes to a set that is still upbeat in pace, but less frenzied than some of the others. It has the feel of the band maturing into their style; a pace that is driven without being hectic, and a lush ensemble sound which nevertheless gives each instrumentalist their own space.
The only piece on the album which is a single tune rather than a set, Friendship is much more successful as a slower interlude than the earlier L’Air Mignonne. A Flook-like melody allows the flute to create movement and pull the speed around, while the later section introduces a great concertina moment as the whole thing builds to a richly textured, soaring piece. At this point in the album, the overwhelming impression is that these guys know what their instruments do well, and are able to get the best from them.
The album finishes with The Mar. In a nice touch, it starts with a bouzouki introduction which stylistically reflects the start of the first set. Another lively ensemble section builds into what seems to be Ímar’s trademark consummate handling of tricky rhythms, combined with a poised change in speed.
At ten tracks, Afterlight skips by quicker than you might expect; although given the pace of the majority of tunes, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised! A significant positive of Afterlight is the tune changes, which are either filled with original textures as points of interest or creep up on the listener so that you often can’t feel them coming at all. Either way, it works marvellously, and both serve as evidence of the care and attention given to these arrangements.
If I had to describe this album in one word, then ‘energetic’ would certainly do it, and a lively style is clearly something that Ímar do better than a more mellow approach. I will be interested to see which direction they move in the future and whether they continue to explore the possibilities of slower tunes.
Ímar have produced an assured and confident first album, which doesn’t suffer from sticking to a familiar formula. Their evident technical skill doesn’t dampen their verve and energy, and this, combined with the sense of the lively interplay between band-members, leaves you with the impression that this group is going to be a lot of fun to follow.