It’s almost exactly five years since Mànran emerged from the Highlands of Scotland with a début single, Latha Math, that brought Gaelic song within a hairs-breath of the UK top 40 (and to number 6 in the indie charts). Written by former band member Norrie MacIver; the title of that delightfully punchy, poppy, irresistible celebration of island life translates as ‘Good Day.‘ It seems fitting, then, that Mànran’s third album, due for release on January 20th, should bear the title An Dà Là – The Two Days.
An Dà Là follows an extended period of touring for the six-piece band who take the wide-ranging material from the Scottish and Gaelic traditions as not only raw material but influences and inspiration for their own finely crafted songs and tune sets.
Fiasco provides an opening that epitomises the band’s singular approach to traditional music, as Ewen Henderson and Ryan Murphy combine Highland and Uilleann pipes to share and explore a trio of invigorating themes while Mark Scobie provides that percussive Mànran punch, extending a driven invitation to dance. There’s still more energy to tap into, courtesy of Gary Innes‘s accordion and Ewen’s fiddle as Inspector leads off with a blindingly fast reel. The Pot Inspector, written by Gary in celebration (we’re told) of a certain well-known bodhrán player’s housekeeping diligence, is joined by MacLittle’s March and Pushing Mist. The set showcases the ability of three tunesmiths (Gary, Ewen and Ryan) at the very top of their productive and creative game.
It’s a game Mànran have been playing for the benefit of live audiences during more than three years of almost constant touring. The result is a palpably enhanced level of mutual understanding on An Dà Là that permeates the music and shines through in the studio performances. There’s also, though, a marked progression in writing, selection and delivery of the album’s songs. High on that list is Ewens bi-lingual title track – An Dà Là. As mentioned, the literal translation of the phrase is ‘The Two Days’, but the deeper meaning of the phrase is gleaned from the Gaelic expression for great change.
Change is a theme that permeates the album, especially with Ewen having taken on the role of lead vocalist for the last year. The song itself holds up the changes that have taken place in the band to the mirror of world events. Opening with vocal and soft guitar; pipes and elaborate keyboards provide an arresting build up as the song surges to invoke the voice of Gaeldom, spanning centuries as it flows between a lament for the past and an anthem for the future. Pulling no punches, there’s a bilingual message sent directly to Washington.
A’ Dhòmhnaill Iain thar a’ chuain
Nach èisd thu ris an fhìrinn bhuaine?
Donald Iain over the ocean,
Won’t you listen to the everlasting truth?
‘S olc do bhriathran gràineil, faoine
a thruailleadh mathas a chinne – daonna
How evil your hateful, vain words
That would sully the goodness of mankind.
As with Mànran’s eponymous 2011 début and The Test, from 2013, contemporary and traditional song both have an important role in the band’s music. Craig Irving‘s heartfelt rendition of Ben Harper‘s affirmation of faith, I Shall Not Walk Alone, brings a new voice to the band. Craig, One third of award-winning trio Talisk, joined the band last February on guitar and vocals. Those vocals are beautifully paired with Ewen’s fiddle harmonies and Gary’s intricate accordion. Underpinned by the latent power of the rhythm section, Mark Scobie‘s drums and Ross Saunders on bass; Alone stands as confirmation that whether it’s Celtic rock on New World folk, Mànran have the talent and adaptability to excel not only in familiar musical forms but to embrace an ever-widening range of influences.
Following the departure of Norrie MacIver it fell to Ewen Henderson to occupy the lead vocalist slot, a move that’s clearly justified in David Francey‘s Pandora’s Box. Lead by acoustic guitars and soft snares, Pandora comments on the ease with which information, true or false, is shared on the using new technology.
Traditional Gaelic song also plays an important role in Mànran’s repertoire, of course. It was said of the great 18th century Argyllshire bard Ailean Dall Dùghallach (Blind Allan MacDougall), that he never lost his sense of humour. That humour shines out in Trod (Trod Mna-an-Tighe ri ‘Fear), his wry observations on marital strife. Featuring Ali Hutton on acoustic guitar and Ben Holloway on electric, the song may be trad but the approach is a 21st century rock stomp outing, with dramatic vocals driven by percussion and bass before accordion and strings add further depth. Beyond domestic humour, traditional song plays an important role in recording, and protesting on, the darker chapters of Scotland’s history. Fios takes Islay bard William Livingston‘s Fios Chun A’ Bhaird (Message to the Bard) on a soulful outing of soft guitars and Gaelic vocal. The song was written in response to the forced emigration of hundreds of people from Islay’s Oa peninsula in the early 1860’s. Although opening with a sombre reflection on the area’s beauty and the way of life of its inhabitants, the song moves on to protest against the betrayal of those people and explodes into life with a wail of pipes, a storm of accordion and a thumping beat laden with rage.
“The glen is a green lea land held by men who hate, without tenantry or crop.
As I found and as I saw, bring this message to the bard”.
Mànran’s clear commitment to live performance shines through not only as a method of connecting with their ever growing audience but as a means of developing their music, with An Dà Là being recorded in stages over the last year. All this on the back of years of regular touring in Scotland, the UK, mainland Europe and as far as the US, Australia and South Korea. The approach pays off generously as the storm of Fios eases and links directly into the tune set Alpha, and its layers of pipes, fiddle and accordion. A piece of classic Gaelic rock that morphs perfectly into energetic puirt à beul, taking us on a whirlwind of vocals, pipes and accordion. A timely reminder of the raw energy behind Mànran’s music and a hallmark of their exhilarating performances. It’s the tune sets that provide the outlet for that energy, and keep their enthusiastic audiences on their feet.
In Parallels fiddle and accordion share the lead before Ryan’s uilleann pipes join the increasingly fast-paced dance that closes with Jarlath Henderson‘s 12 Weeks and a Day. Seeing Autobhan on the track list inspired a brief sense of trepidation about an impending Kraftwerk cover, but a combination of whistles and strings soon allayed my fears with a steady reel filled with depth, imagination, no shortage of fine bass, and more twists and turns than any superhighway could possibly incorporate. There’s a merry detour and a burst of puirt à beul before a stormy conclusion.
Strong sees Craig and Ryan combine their tune writing skill for a gently skipping melody on guitar and uillean pipes driven gently along by percussion and joined ultimately by Gary’s accordion for an enchanting lead into the album’s final, fiery offering, Hour. The Hour Jig builds from fiddle and guitar to a fascinating exploration with pipes and drums, and on to another rock outing that invokes visions of festival crowds bouncing in enthusiastic unison towards its frenzied, breathtaking conclusion with a stormy Henderson reel.
Without a doubt, there’s no shortage of music for your money on An Dà Là. Mànran excel at distilling the energy and excitement of their live shows into studio sets that not only mirror the experience but also make room for intricate musical virtuosity that provides the very finest detail. That detail, in turn, provides the album’s lyrical and vocal content with a platform that supports enthralling performances and underpins the band’s commitment to continued, and successful, exploration. Fans who’ve flocked to Mànran’s live shows over the last three years will be familiar with a great deal of the music on this album, they’ve played an important role in its development. An Dà Là is a fine reward for their patience and a third album that Mànran can be proud of.
An Dà Là is released on 20 January 2017
For details of Mànran’s upcoming TV & Radio appearances including STV Live at Five (17 Jan) | BBC: The Quay Sessions with Roddy Hart (To be recorded on the 18th and broadcast on the 19th Jan) as well as upcoming live dates, including Glasgow’s Barrowlands (20 Jan) and an extensive tour of Germany visit: manran.co.uk/gigs
Photo Credit: Euan Robertson