British Sea Power’s third, Mercury-nominated album Do You Like Rock Music? undoubtedly gave the Brighton quintet a higher profile, though concerned a few long term fans in its stylistic move towards the stadium, even if the lyrics themselves still dealt with familiar band topics such as the environment.
Man Of Aran, to some extent, reminds us that the ‘Rock’ in that album’s title was more about an island than a style of music. For this is a soundtrack to a 1934 black and white film, recently performed live by the band at the National Film Theatre as part of Ether 09. The film itself is available here on an accompanying DVD, which is important – as without the images the music itself is at times inconsequential.
That said, as far as setting a mood goes it is extremely effective, and often poignant. Spearing The Sunfish is a stark evocation of an animal’s pain, and is all the more remarkable in the way it starts, through the voice of a single, distorted guitar. The rolling drums that follow come from the depths of the earth itself, as if the planet itself is gathered in protest.
It’s an illustration of the potential power of wordless music, as the band manipulate the textures available to them. They create a sort of weather system as they describe the island of Aran in its rugged beauty. The listener feels the spray of salt water on the face, the wind in their hair, and watches gulls circling overhead as the clouds race by behind.
The portrait is ushered in beautifully with the softly undulating piano arpeggios of the title track, while the personality of the island itself, and its inhabitants, is explored through the stuttering waltz of The Currach. Come Wander With Me, the only track to feature a fully fledged vocal, is restrained but moving in its folk-inflected melody.
In some ways Man Of Aran is everything ‘Rock Music’ wasn’t, save that album’s instrumental The Great Skua, which has been practically lifted on to closing track No Man Is An Archipelago. Throughout the band show commendable restraint, even in the faster numbers such as The South Sound. It means that when they do fully cut loose, as they do in response to the pain of the sunfish, the effect is all the more powerful.
Yet while this is good mood music, like a lot of soundtrack material it requires the element inspiring it – the visuals. Happily with those supplied on the accompanying DVD the work is complete, though it is difficult to view this as a British Sea Power album proper; Man Of Aran is, rather, an enjoyable diversion into different waters.