If I were on a boat amid the rollicking waves of the Irish sea, or the English channel – depending on which side you’re on – ‘Manannan’s Cloak’ the latest album from Manx trio Barrule, would be the perfect soundtrack. Borrowing from maritime Celtic folklore, the album title – literally the ‘Son of the Sea’ (Manannan) – is richly evoked with the strident combination of fiddle (Tomas Callister), piano accordion (Jamie Smith) and bouzouki (Adam Rhodes), but on this their second album, with the added bonus of many talented guest musicians.
Tom kicks off at a pace with the Fathaby jig (from the Isle of Man) tightly backed by Tad Sargent (bodhran) and Adam as part of a 5-tune set entitled ‘The Wheel of Fire’. Jamie takes over the helm with a second jig Ta Dick Veg giving Tom enough time to grab his tenor banjo. The third tune in the set is another jig Garey Ford (by Manx flute player Peddyr Cubberly), which eventually gives way into a reel, Moghrey Laa Boaldyn and finally into the driver of this mega-set the Smuggler’s lullaby, a Manx barndance, here played at great speed to excellent effect.
The second track ‘The King of the Sea’ – the best song on the album – is sung by Paul McKenna (no, not the hypnotist!) Scottish singer, guitarist and bouzouki player, and depicts the adventures of Manx fishermen as they catch herring. I particularly like the subtle wailing of a woman in the background, but can find no credits to her on the sleeve notes. Perhaps it is in fact a herring gull. I was hoping not since the album is the conjoined effort of thirteen men and could perhaps – on that level – do with a little girl power.
‘Kinnoull’ – a tune by Peddyr Cubberly inspired by a Scottish hill – brings in my favourite instrument, the uillean pipes, played beautifully here by Calum Stewart with sensitive backing from Jamie and Adam. ‘Yn Ven-Ainshter Dewil’ (The Cruel Mistress) – a song about a woman scorned – is performed emotively by Manx singer-songwriter, Greg Joughin over a wash of pipes and accordion. This song leads on to ‘Illiam y Thalhear’ (William Taylor) which brings in the wonderful sound of lap steel guitar performed by Dylan Fowler, giving the tune a real presence.
I thought I might’ve misread the sleeve notes for track 6, ‘Fir-Hammag Yioogh’ which is Manx for ‘High-net worth individuals’ but delving into the lyrics I discover that the song – written by David Speers and Chris Sheard, here performed by Gregory Joughin – is in fact a protest against wealthy landowners who have exploited the Manx commoners. Track 7 ‘Graih Foalsey’ (False Love) played by Tom with piano accompaniment from David Kilgallon plus Adam and Jamie, brings a meditative moment to the album.
By track 8 the boys are reminiscing about touring in Dingle as they lilt off into an Irish polka Betsy Baker’s giving way to a hornpipe The Wind that shook the Barley played of course at Barrule-speed. The third tune From Dingle with Love, written by Jamie is well-matched melodically to the hornpipe. Jamie sings lead vocals on track 9, Illiam Boght (Poor William), but don’t be deceived by the pretty melody and beautiful arrangement. This song is about a misogynistic serial killer who eventually meets his end in an icy pond.
The final track ‘The Laxey Reels’ features a 6-tune set of self-penned reels. As Barrule explained to me when I was last saw them ‘There are precious few reels from the Isle of Man, but lots of jigs!’ So the boys have taken things in hand to ably compensate for the deficit. ‘The Laxey Wheel (in the Manx town of Laxey) is the largest working water wheel in the world, and to this day it keeps turning, turning, turning…’ Hopefully these tunes will keep turning up at sessions across the decades to come. All in all Mannanan’s Cloak is a stupendously creative endeavour by this terrifically talented trio. I look forward to hearing album number three.