Manran – The Two Days

Album Review | Manran Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

From the stylish cover of the album and the moody band shot inside, to the opening Guitar and Uilleann Pipes on Fiasco, An Da La – The Two Days first track, this is an album that just crackles with cool sophistication.  The instrumentation and much of the music may be firmly within the tradition, but the delivery and feel are, to these ears, very 21st Century.  Like The Afro Celt Sound System, The Peatbog Faeries, Shooglenifty or Martin Swan’s Mouth Music, as John Martyn said of his 1970 electric sonic experiments, “the needle is new and the patterns are old”.  While keyboard textures are threaded around pipes, guitar and frisky percussion, the energy and the sprit are true.  “Trod” is a storming electric track that crackles with power behind a hypnotic Gaelic lyric.  On a dark song about over indulgence the band are tight with some head down rocking passages against vocal parts that recall early Clannad, but all with a gritty rawness and no folk ‘tweeness’ in sight.  Inspector is a more straight ahead set of dance tracks that showcase the tight rhythm section and the sheer drive and attack of Ryan Murphy’s Pipe playing, you can imagine the crowd being driven wild to this track.  That Manran are looking outwards is clear by their choice of Pandora by the excellent Canadian songwriter and performer David Francey.  The thoughtful song is a tempo break after the tunes and its consideration of the impact of the modern world and technology is timely.  Like the album’s title track, it’s also a further indication of Manran’s intent to be both current, in the moment and the latest part of a long shifting tradition.  Sadly not that there is anything new in social comment or protest.  “Parallels” is the other side of Manran, infectious dance music, a hard edged drum and bass rhythm with skittish pipes over the top, you can feel the sweat drops fly.  “Autobahn” has more of a slippery time signature, any appreciative moves would have to be more considered than the old school punk pogo-ing to the previous track.  An interesting bass line underpins turns by accordion, the pipes and Ewen Henderson’s vocals.  “Fios” is an anthemic song that tells of the 19th Century Islay clearances.  After an acoustic troubadour start the impassioned vocal is underpinned by wonderfully gritty keyboards, and a rhythm that sounds like a call to arms or thousand marching feet.  As with so much of this excellent album, the arrangement is always interesting, instruments build, swell and fall like an angry sea, providing light and shade.  Rising out of the keyboard sea swell at the end of the previous track the Alpha tune set shifts from atmospheric keyboards into a fine Pipes duet ending in another piece of puirt a beul, mouth music, the vocalisation of instrumental music.  Celtic BeBop.  This is another excellent element of Manran’s music.  Alone is their take on Ben Harper’s Americana spiritual.  Craig Irving’s vocal is more strident than Harper’s, with none of his hesitant vulnerability, in Manran’s capable hands this is a life affirming song of hope.  “An Da La”, the title track, is an album highlight among many highs.  Thoughtful lyrics cutting between Gaelic and English run over keyboard and pipe airs.  The lyrical parallels with current affairs and illusions to American Presidential elect are deliberate.  The album closes with “Hour” a set of jigs and pipe reels.  “Lochan na h-Achlaise” the second tune opens with some almost dubby fiddle playing and a Bass part that is more Clash than Celtic.  Great Torrington in North Devon inspires the last breakneck roaring highland reel indicating that it’s all about the delivery rather than the just the material.  But then given that Manran have already drawn in American Gospel Folk Blues and Canadian Social Protest, this should be no surprise.  This is an album that veers sharply from slow burn and smouldering to raging inferno, by a band whose music has the attack and musical vim of Stiff Little Fingers tempered with grace and delicacy.