In the course of any band’s evolution, there can sometimes appear a point that separates a previous version of the band from the one that’s taken its place, even when the name and the overall style remain. As in Genesis after Peter Gabriel, or Deep Purple with Steve Morse instead of Richie Blackmore on the guitar. You know what I mean.
I think this is the point Mànran have arrived with Ùrar: they are still Mànran – but not the same Mànran.
I saw the new lineup, with Kim Carnie and Aidan Moodie added to the original quintet, at their Celtic Connections 2020 gig. It was a great night but I felt Kim and Aidan had not yet quite settled in their places in the band at that point. It felt more like Mànran with two special guests rather than an organic unit.
Two rough years later, the seven-piece band come up with a release that puts my worries decidedly to rest.
I revisited their previous album, An Là Dà, before listening to Ùrar and I feel it’s safe to say the expanded lineup has brought more colors and shades into the music; there’s also a sense of the music being more layered than before.
As Mànran are one of my (and my wife’s) very favorite bands, I have to admit I needed to spin the album a couple of times to really get into it, as their previous trad-based and immediately danceable style has now branched out to find new modes that demand your ear a bit more than your body, so to say.
The difference is not of cosmic magnitude but it is real. Consider the opening: Ailean starts with a strong, mid-tempo, archaic drs’n’bass beat that contrasts with Kim’s tender but very focused, no-nonsense vocals. And when Mànran’s trademark “Scottish Funk” groove sets in at 1:30, it’s played with a lighter touch than one might expect: instead of a party feel, it glides rather than pounds and gives space to each musician to be heard clearly. The arrangement lives and evolves throughout the four minutes of the song and becomes a full blast only at the very end.
The same “one level up in sophistication” can be heard almost on every track. Black Tower combines a pretty heavy stop-and-go riff with a lovely, fluid pipe melody; The Loop is a chip off the previous Mànran block of instrumentals but comes across as sharper and somehow lighter; Foghar is brilliantly constructed to optimize the expanded toolbox the band now has; Griogal Crìdhe closes the album with a waltz that has a an easy elegance I don’t think was there on any previous Mànran album.
The more traditional style Gaelic songs and instrumentals are also extremely enjoyable and Kim Carnie’s lovely voice and presence really lights up the Gaelic material.
To sum it up: Mànran have been great all along and now they are at least a notch more interesting and, just maybe, a bit even more great than they were before. Ùrar us simply fabulous first chapter in the saga of Mànran mark II.
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