When I think of Ireland I think of the obvious postcard pictures: The rugged coastlines, the misty moors, the ancient ruins, the monks that travelled to all the corners of the medieval world. I think of foggy greens, rainy blues, and cloudy greys. I think of mystery and adventure. And I think of the ambient sounds of
the first introduction to Celtic music I heard on the radio as a young lad, many years ago. Well, now I also think of
for the music they make, the music
(the artistic leader of ANÚNA) wrote for this collaboration with members of the Dutch a capella singing group
The Olga Vocal Ensemble
and the male voices of
takes my heart to ancient Eire. The times when the Tuatha Dé Danann could still be seen as shadows in the mist. The days when the footsteps of the great hero Cúchulainn still shook the earth. The times when the Morrigan was still flying over the dark battlefields and the dark nights when the druids were still leading their ceremonies within the ancient standing stone circles, waiting for the solstice sun to arise. But also to medieval times, when the Irish monks spread over the known world and shared the knowledge of the antique world that was almost gone.
With their deep full voices, M’ANAM takes me with them to those long-gone days, in a more than stunning way.
You would think there is no way I could do a review about M’ANAM without mentioning Micheal McGlynn, the founder, composer and artistic leader of ANÚNA since 1987. Michael is named as the artistic leader of M’ANAM, he co-produced the album, he contributed to almost every song, so it would be easy to think M’ANAM is just another Michael McGlynn project. But it is NOT!!! To use Michael’s own words: “M’ANAM is very different. It’s a band of brothers! It’s a true band – like any other – and they act like a band. My role in M’ANAM is that I am a composer and someone who inspires others to create for themselves. Nothing more.”
Talking to Michael McGlynn about M’ANAM it became very clear to me he doesn’t want to be the leader of them. He wants them to shine and wants to help them with ideas and their talents in any way he can. M’ANAM is a true band and Michael just happens to be one of the members.
The idea for M’ANAM started when Michael discovered a Dutch a capella group on Youtube that sang one of his pieces. He was really taken by the quality of their version. That a capella group was the Olga Vocal Ensemble and Michael got a chance to meet them when ANÚNA gave a performance in The ir hometown, Utrecht. Philip Barkhudarov, a member of the Olga Vocal Ensemble describes them all coming together as follows: ” In a way, the development of M’ANAM and the connection of ANÚNa and Olga Vocal Ensemble were inevitable. Our shared love of the ancient and the commonality of the rugged Icelandic landscapes and culture put us on a collision course long before we knew anything about it. It was this shared interest that first drew us -the guys from Olga- to perform some of Michael McGlynn’s ANÚNA songs, which eventually led to us meeting up. And things just took off from there.”
Not taking anything away from any member of the Olga Vocal Ensemble, who are all very talented singers, Michael was fascinated by the voice of Bjarni Guðmundsson who has, as Michael explained: “a strange and ethereal tenor sound that I really wanted to write for” In March of 2017 Bjarni joined ANÚNA and together Michael and Bjarni selected a song that would showcase that unique voice of the latter. That song became Gunnarshólmi. A song that would, in the end, prove very influential for the direction in which M’ANAM’s sound would develop.
The lovely ballad Gunnarshólmi, solo vocals by Bjarni Guðmundsson.
Touring with a vocal group like ANÚNA and working so extensively together unavoidabley means that colleagues become friends. And having so many artistic talents together in a group of friends almost organically leads to them make music together. And that is what happened with M’ANAM. A band formed from friendship and the wish to make music together. The final touch was when Philip Barkhudarov from the Olga Vocal Ensemble joined the M’ANAM idea with his deep rich Russian bass sound. Bitter Wind and Deyr Fé were born, and with it the distinctive M’ANAM sound.
Philip’s thoughts on it:” It was a huge collaborative effort – the inspiration and stories behind the songs come from all of us, and each singer’s unique sound and vocal/instrumental skills can add to the sound in surprising ways. Some of the songs didn’t take on any kind of recognizable form until we’d spent a good while experimenting in the studio and finding out what the song actually was. When I went into the studio to work on Bitter Wind for the first time, I had no idea what it would end up being. But with some experimental input from the singers, and with a few epic layers of percussion from Noel Eccles, it became something greater than any of us had anticipated.”
With ANÚNA being an Irish choir (with their own unique twist to the genre. Hopefully I can come back to that in an ANÚNA review) and The Olga Vocal Ensemble being an a capella singing group with a Nordic influenced record under their belt: their second album Vikings!– it would be obvious to think that M’ANAM would be a mix of the two, and in THIS case, it IS actually true.
M’ANAM -the album- is a lovely mix of the choir influences from ANÚNA and the acapella sound of the Olga Vocal Ensemble, making it an album that sounds classical, yet free-spirited and very Celtic at the same time. Which in a way is a funny comment because the first song, Celeuma actually is a poem describing the rhythm of the Roman oarsmen beautifully put to music. The strength of the low voices makes it almost mystical and the different melody lines weave together effortlessly, even if you’re not used to listening to choir-like vocal music.
As I said, most of the music on M’ANAM has a Celtic background, mostly putting old Irish, Scottish or English texts to music or rearranging old traditionals and the M’ANAM singers were clearly involved in it. The Hound’s Cry, for instance, is co-written by Cian O’Donnell, and the English traditional The Sheep Stealer is rearranged by Fergus Cahillane and Michael McGlynn together.
Fergus Cahillane also had the lead voice in Ardi Cuain, a song full of longing and melancholy, and I love his voice. So pure, so warm, it really struck a chord within me. The choir behind him even enhances that melancholy and do I hear a bit of overtone singing there too?
It wasn’t until I read the blogs on Michael McGlynn’s personal webpage that I understood what makes Ardi Cuain -actually the whole album- so special. Fergus doesn’t sing the solo as a classically trained tenor, which I would expect from a classic choir album. No, he uses his normal voice, well-trained of course, but still, his voice stays as it naturally is. And I suddenly realize that with the added amount of technique you put in a voice, you lose some pure, raw emotion. Not so in Ardi Cuain. It’s pouring over with emotion. A lovely blend between the old Clannad, a Gregorian choir and a touch of pagan folk with the overtone voice. You can just feel the mist drift over the Irish shore while you listen to this. Easily one of my favourite songs on the album.
On the fourth song, Bitter Wind, M’ANAM manages to keep this ancient mystic atmosphere, this pure rawness of strong emotions. The intro sound is already creepy, indeed a bitter wind comes out of my speakers. As I already told in the intro, this time Philip Barkudarov has his moment to shine. His voice has that deep rich Russian sound and he makes the most of it. Especially the way he actually holds back to make it sound even deeper, even stronger, sounds so impressive. But I shouldn’t focus on him alone here. The group as a whole makes the most of their deep male voices. Agreed all the layers of a male voice are there, high and low, as you would expect from a choir or acapella singing group. But the focus is on that low, rich, deep sound, with another bit of overtone singing just as icing on the cake. Another stunning song.
Tenebrae comes a bit closer towards what I would expect from a male choir. But in this case, it is Gavin Brennan’s subtle saxophone which adds that touch of difference. that extra touch of beauty that pulls you in. It’s those touches that make the music accessible for people who have never listened to classical choral music before. If you are interested in discovering this type of music, M’ANAM is an ideal album to start with.
With Deyr Fé we go into those dark deep voices again. Bjarni Guðmundsson is the lead vocalist on this song, and his high tenor cuts right through the wall of low chords the choir is laying down. That moment where acapella singing, meets new-age choir singing, meets the intense power of the Icelandic landscape in this 10th-century Viking text put to music by Michael McGlynn.
The lovely Icelandic ballad Gunnarshólmi; the English traditional The Sheep Stealer -with its strong Celtic folk feel the most acapella style song on M’ANAM- ; and the title song M’ANAM are all also beautiful slow choir songs that are like balm to the soul. If ever there was an album you could totally unwind on, this would be it.
Bandó Ribineann (video above) is one of the very few upbeat songs on M’ANAM, the tone goes up in the direction of the tenors and it feels like spring just sparkled through your window. Another one of my favourite songs.
Keen eyes will now have noticed that I missed out three songs, The Hounds Cry, Ag Iascaireacht and La Chanson De Mardi Grass. There are not bad songs, not at all. Ag Iascaireacht is a cheerful Irish melody made even more cheerful by the upbeat bodhrán under it. La Chanson De Mardi Grass sounds to me like Gregorian chant (I know it isn’t actually Gregorian at all, it just sounds that way), meets French African country singing. And The Hounds Cry is a seriously catchy Celtic pop song gone choral, especially with the electric guitar melody in it. But, the thing is that they, for me, feel out of place.
The overall feel of ancient mystique, those strong impressive vocal songs, they catch me emotionally and take me back to times long gone by. That overall feeling clashes with these three songs. It’s like watching a thrilling episode of Twin Peaks and suddenly having three scenes from Who framed Roger Rabbit cut right through it.
Again, I do like the songs themselves, but for me, they would only work if they were put in a different place on the album. I would suggest after Bandó Ribineann so that there is a more natural flow of music for me. But that’s only a small glitch on an otherwise impressive album. Something that wouldn’t bother people who are less emotionally involved while listening
All in all, M’ANAM is a powerful, impressive album. One of the M’ANAM members mentioned that although most songs are slow songs, ballads, there aren’t any love songs on the album. At that point, I don’t agree. Granted, there are no traditional love themes to be found on M’ANAM. But the whole album is filled with love. A love for music. A love and respect for each other as friends and singers. And a love for the land and its history, not only of their (adopted) homeland Eire but also for Island, two naturally rich and rugged countries with stunning landscapes, one wild and ancient, one young and turbulent. Two sister countries that in their history are so intertwined.
M’ANAM managed to capture that in their songs, in their performance, I could clearly feel it. People who love the music of ANÚNA, the early Clannad, or the wave of new age albums from the late 80’s – think Gregorian chant or
will love this album. People who are new to choral music, this truly is a lovely CD to discover its power in all its beauty.
Editor: Sara Weeda