At The Barrier

Brace yourself, the pan-Gaelic instrumental supergroup are back, rampant and ready to bite your ankles, raring to go from the very start.

A confession; I thought Ímar long gone, a band of the past, as their inevitable main focus, Mohsen Amini, was moving ever onward and upward, towards making Talisk the very top of their tree, in the Scottish trad fusion forest. (And where they are certainly contenders.) Inevitable main focus? Perhaps a little unfair, given the pedigree of the band spreads across other lofty skyhuggers like Mànran, RURA and Mec Lir, but Amini, a blur of fingers and ripped knee jeans, as he ricochets his chair about stages, squeezing the very devil out of his concertina, tends to grab more than a fair share of attention. So it was a rare fillip to find out the contrary, and that Ímar, the band, unchanged in line-up, were still a viable unit, playing, touring and recording. As well as this disc, it seems they grace nearly every festival this summer, from sky to Skye. Fasten yer seatbelts!

A flurry of swiftly strummed strings and deftly dabbed bodhran is the first sound you hear, suggesting the gears are already cranked up and needing little choke, ahead of a veritable fiddle frenzy, uillean pipes sneaking in neatly alongside. Before you know it, all five players are barreling along, full pelt. Various instruments dip in and out, but it is the unison play that delights most, with the engine room switching tack and syncopating all across the road. The thrust of the melody twists and turns through two or three iterations and it is five minutes very well spent. Yup, they’re back, here the torrent of gleeful noise pointing indubitably towards the Irish end of their Manx/Scots/Irish triangle. Wasting not a second, they then scoot straight into Splinter O’Neill, another swatch of connecting tunes. The wrist-snapping percussion of Adam Brown, on bodhran, has to draw a call here, so relentless is the thrust. Brown is the guitarist in RURA and doesn’t even get to play bodhran in that band, which gives some idea of the wealth of unexpected talents this collection of virtuosi can draw upon. (But don’t worry, he also gets to play his equally percussive rhythm guitar on this disc as well. Not bad for a mild-mannered child of the Suffolk lowlands!) As this set progresses, there are distinct infusions of anything but trad, especially as Amini lays down some cross-textural power chords on his concertina. The bouzouki backing of the other Adam, Rhodes, is on fire, with fiddle, pipes and flutes squealing and squalling at the top end. These come from Tomas Callister, for the fiddle, and Ryan Murphy for anything blown, whether by lung or bellow, the immediate realisation sinking (back) in that this is a group of five equal parts, with no frontman or leader, despite earlier comments.

A brief respite, with the more reflective Waterhorse. I’d say slower, but it is still quite a canter, and, written by Callister, gives Amini his first brief run of lead play, if his compadres are quick to slot in beside, the whole a restrained and elegant melody. Most of the material here is from the pens of Callister and Amini, Murphy also contributing. So, by and large, spanking new tunes, as fully formed as any the ancient reels and airs they sound they should be. Down to a slow trot comes Eioghann’s, with uillean pipes taking the fore, an eerie and atmospheric piece, undercut with a definite chug. At times, as the ensemble upturn the expected twists and turns, there are distinct whiffs of prog, that could grace many a late 60’s/early 70’s stalwart of the underground. (Heck, a glimpse of the album art, displaying King Ímar; yes, there was one, on the shoreline, gazing out across his 9th-century kingdom, sword in hand, could equally grace such an album. Not a trillion miles from Wishbone Ash’s Argus, if a little bit more fanciful, with a longboat rather than the spaceship.) The bubbling intro of The Stinger reinforces that mood, if only for a moment, as the fiddle, flute and concertina fly off into one of the few genuine traditional tunes. A double-declutch sees it veer sideways into one of their own tunes, two, in fact, the momentum constantly maintained, subtle changes in speed and direction all factored in and executed effortlessly.

The Gift Horse follows as a triad of connected tunes, with, again, nuanced quick swerves in rhythm sneaking in to keep the listener’s attention. Again the helter-skelter patter of Brown on stretched goatskin has me marvelling, with, maybe, his RURA bandmate, David Foley, looking anxiously at his prowess. Imagine A World slows things right down, plaintive fiddle rising, like smoke, in an otherwise empty sky. Pipes join, the combination, as it so often does, offering that peculiar tingle, concertina adding some lower spread on the palette. The least energetic track on the album, the emotional heft feels just as exhausting. Wonderful! No time to reflect, mind, as it all goes back into overdive, for Neachtain’s Wing, a trio of trad, each change of key serendipitously upping the tempo. An almost Balkan feel creeps in for the middle section, a Manx tune, as it ever faster drives on.

Legal Tønder is a play on the name of the Danish town (and home of the yearly folk festival), where, when the band played there previously, advantage was taken of the local mayor’s powers to marry. More Vegas than Vatican, the band remains uncertain if Amini and Ryan are actually married…..). Whistle is the initial lead here, over the by now familiar strummed guitar, bouzouki and backing, A simpler triad of tunes, it as if powder is being kept dry for the finale, The Tree Of Life. True to form and expectation, this is an all hands on deck and no holds barred extravaganza. It starts, shall we say, briskly, with every slight pause pushing the accelerator further through the floor. An exhilarating rough and tumble, it exemplifies both the skills and stamina of this band, for whom the welcome back can only be huge and heartfelt.

Live? Bring it on!! Here’s a taster, with The Stinger, from the album.