British Sea Power — Man Of Aran

In 1932 the American film-maker Robert Flaherty created his most enduring work, the drama-documentary Man Of Aran, and helped propagate the mythic status of The Aran Islands as some primal landscape of man vs nature. In 2008 Kendal’s British Sea Power wrote and performed a new soundtrack to Flaherty’s film. Soundtrack albums often suffer when isolated from the visuals, but this set offers both an audio CD and a DVD of Man Of Aran so no excuses there. Indeed the DVD offers a choice of studio and live versions of the soundtrack.

Arainn, largest of the islands and setting of the film, is a beautiful bleak wedge of limestone karst in the Atlantic off Galway. It is even now a harsh living for the islanders amidst the rocks and the raging sea. Yet each time I visit I have been seduced by the sublimity of the landscape and the air of something spiritual that pervades.

Flaherty’s film certainly offers the harshness, opening with a damaged currach being dragged from crashing waves, and it offers a romanticised image of the noble peasant family played by local but unrelated people. Colman ‘Tiger’ King is the star, a rugged handsome figure leading his crew or cracking rocks to find soil; whilst his ‘wife’ played by the striking Maggie Dirrane plays her role watching, labouring alongside her ‘man’ . As Tim Robinson writes in his majestic acoount of the islands Stones Of Aran

The images Flaherty dealt us, of Man as subduer of sea-monsters, of Wife anxiously looking out for his return – the perfect primal family in unmediated conflict with a world of towering waves and barren rocks, as if eternally in silhouette against the storm – remain like grand, sombre court-cards on the table of the mind, and will not be brushed aside by subsequent knowledge of the subtle actualities of Aran life.

So how do BSP convey the broad strokes of Flaherty’s vision and the subtle delicacy of Aran that slips through? It is largely an instrumental album, with only one haunting romantic lament featuring vocals. Rather the music here is of the bold sweep of Mogwai, the noisescapes of Sonic Youth, the dramatic dynamic of My Bloody Valentine, even the stark melancholy of early Sigur Ros, and, when listened to alone, it does not match up to any of those on a consistent basis. In isolation it is a little too directionless, occasionally too obvious in its echo of crashing surf by crashing strings and guitar.

Watched with the film however, and it is a remarkable piece. The obvious waves remain, but the dramatic tension of ‘Spearing the Sun Fish’ is finely attuned to the scenes of the harpooning and capture of a Basking Shark. These are disturbing scenes, there are no special effects, it is real, and it is far more thrilling than anything I’ve seen at the cinema recently. It is also one of the anachronisms of Flaherty’s film, as the islanders had abandoned that way of fishing 50 years before this film. As terrifying, in its way, is the section ‘Vertiginous Boy’ where King and Dirrane’s ‘son’ fishes from the great sheer cliffs of Dun Aengus. Here the spiralling music offers a genuine sense of the peril and the drama of the film.

aranWithout the DVD I would probably not bother with Man of Aran, but with Robert Flaherty’s images BSP’s music takes off and merits your attention. For a real recommendation though: visit the islands themselves, I cannot say more than that.


3 Responses

  1. Do they have it at HMV?

  2. actually, really enjoyed that, I want the set AND i wanna visit. Nice one

  3. This year’s Green Man Festival features BSP preforming the Man of Aran soundtrack live to the film in the cinema tent.

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