Ímar’s career seems to have proceeded at a pace similar to one of their more frenetic tune sets. Coming together in early 2016, by that summer, the five-piece were playing festivals as prestigious as Cambridge and launched their debut album, Afterlight, at 2017’s Celtic Connections. Summer 2017 they wowed a further clutch of festival audiences and then collected the Horizon Award for Best Emerging Act at 2018’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Another busy summer of festivals followed, I caught up with them at Wickham Festival (reviewed here), and now we welcome their second album, Avalanche. Remarkably, during these jam-packed years, most of the band were also busy performing in bands they’d been part of long before Ímar.
The ten tracks on Avalanche perfectly showcase the band’s development over the last two and a half years. Still firmly rooted in the Celtic, predominantly Irish tradition, they’ve expanded the range of their own compositions and invited in some notable guests to broaden the sound palette. Donald Shaw’s performing and arranging skills are much in demand and Ímar have enlisted him to provide both, playing electric piano and devising the string arrangements performed by Greg Lawson and Fiona Stephen (violins), Rhoslyn Lawton (viola) and Sonia Cromarty (cello).
Avalanche opens with a tune set that is typically Ímar, setting off at a canter. The pace set by Adam Brown on bodhrán along with Adam Rhodes’ bouzouki, soon overlain by Mohsen Amini’s concertina (the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘Musician of the Year”), Tomás Callister on fiddle and Ryan Murphy’s flute. For the first tune of the set, Breakfast Club composed by Mohsen and Tom, the melody instruments largely keep together, the fiddle briefly breaking rhythm. The switch to Spiders, a composition from Peatbog Faeries’ Peter Morrison, is marked by the introduction of Adam Brown’s guitar and, after the first run through, uilleann pipes from Ryan. The pipes gradually take a more prominent rôle in the third tune of the set, Ryan’s own composition, Eggs. An opening set that re-establishes the mix of stellar musicianship and energetic ensemble playing that Ímar has made their trademark.
But the band soon show what they can do with a slow, melodious piece. White Strand comes from all three of the band’s composers, Mohsen, Tomás and Ryan. It begins with Ryan’s flute and a melody that rises, falls and twirls, surely evoking seabirds over the strand of the title. The concertina joins, sometimes adding a steady note behind the flute, sometimes taking over the tune, while behind them both, strings give the track a rich, deep heart into which to lose oneself. Throughout, the bodhrán, alongside its bass notes, adds a staccato rhythm that, far from being at odds with the sweeping melody, fits perfectly. Think a flock of waders dashing to and fro along the water’s edge.
As if to emphasise how comfortable Ímar feel with ‘slow and lyrical’, the next track, Afar, further reduces the pace and, without the contrasting bodhrán of White Strand, it truly shows off the band’s ability to create an ethereal, lilting atmosphere. It’s a couple of tracks later, with the three-tune set, Revenge, before the pace quickens and Mohsen displays again his astounding ability to shorten notes from his concertina, packing more into a bar of music than one would believe possible.
It was a shared love of Irish traditional music that, the band says, brought them together in the fertile ground of Glasgow’s session scene. Yet only Ryan is Irish, while Tom and Adam Rhodes hail from the Isle of Man, Mohsen from Glasgow and Adam Brown from Suffolk. Traditional Manx music occupies a small but important corner of the Celtic tradition, and Tom and Adam have been much involved in bringing it to a wider audience, playing, along with Jamie Smith, in the trio, Barrule. Tom’s compositions, much in evidence throughout this album, are, naturally, strongly informed by it and Ímar give a further nod to the Manx scene by including a tune from the prolific Peddyr Cubberley in The Third Attempt set. The other two tunes of the set are from Mohsen and are the final band compositions on the album, for the remaining two tracks, Ímar return to their first love, the Irish tradition.
Slane is an old Irish air, often found as the tune for the hymn, Be Thou My Vision, and this has given Ímar the title for their arrangement, Be Thou. It allows the band to revisit ‘slow and lyrical’ but more importantly gives Adam Brown a guitar part that he can really get his teeth into. Initially, the guitar lies behind the concertina and pipes as they take turns with the melody, but the guitar is allowed a solo for the final minute. For the last track, three traditional Irish reels, The Sally Reel, Dunrobin Castle and Dunmore Lasses are combined under the title Trip to Novi Sad, commemorating the band’s somewhat eventful visit to perform in Serbia. This closes the album in the same vein as the opening, Ímar showing again that when it comes to fast and furious, no one does it better.
When Ímar’s first album came up for review, I was really disappointed I wasn’t available to take it on, a disappointment that I questioned when subsequently seeing them in performance. Perhaps a band that showed such instinctive communication when playing on stage and transmitted such intense energy might not be able to capture that in a recording? I’m delighted to say that Avalanche not only thoroughly dispels any such thoughts but also reveals Ímar as a band equally capable of teasing out the emotions of a slow air. There’s a widely held perception that the more successful a band’s debut album, the trickier it becomes to get the second album right. Ímar have followed their instincts and produced an album that preserves all that made Afterlight such a welcome breath of fresh air whilst giving Avalanche a character all its own. Following the release of an album of this quality, you wouldn’t bet against yet more awards coming Ímar’s way.
– Johnny Whalley