British Sea Power

Man Of Aran

Listen to British Sea Power – Man Of Aran on Spotify

In the scene that both opens and closes Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 social study Man Of Aran, a returning fisherman struggles to land his boat, nets and catch on the rock shelf of a shore of their Aran island home – a rocky outcrop in the mouth of Galway Bay in western Ireland that has neither trees nor soil.

As another wave crashes and retreats, he, his wife and his son charge out into the squall to retrieve their livelihood, only to have to flee another foaming white wall capable of pulling all three out into the tide. Over and over the fisherman battles against the very sea on which his and his families’ lives rely.

As a metaphor for life itself, this watery catch 22 is a powerful one – every bit as evocative as Fitzcarraldo pulling the boat over the Amazonian hill in Herzog’s film of the same name. It’s a humbling and inescapable truth – the truth of the elements’ ability to crush and discard man like a grain of sand – in a film that combines high drama with social realism to powerful effect.

In putting together this composite family of islanders and filming fishing techniques that were fifty years out of date even then – particularly evident in a long scene covering the struggle of a basking shark hunt using only a row boat and hand-thrown harpoon – some critics have noted that Flaherty exercised artistic license throughout the making of the film. None of this matters: Man Of Aran offers an impression of a time and a place – and a people – just as any great poem or painting does too. It’s a depiction of a world that’s all but disappeared in the West today, yet whose message of struggling against and working with Mother Nature remains every bit as relevant.

British Sea Power’s soundtrack is an impression of an impression; a 21st century attempt to complement a 20th century film about an often 19th century way of life. And it works beautifully. Few bands could handle such subject matter so well, but they’re a romantic bunch, BSP, and it’s not hard to see why they chose to soundtrack this lovingly produced silent film.

Clearly understanding that there is no greater drama than that of nature at its most almighty, British Sea Power have already built an entire oeuvre around the simple pleasures to be found in the natural world around us – from bird life to floods, from moor and mountain wanderings to inclement weather. But Man Of Aran sees the quartet breaking free from the constraints of a tried and tested rock context to create a soundscape that is every bit as hypnotic and tumultuous as the sea itself; the ebb and flow of the tide is perfectly depicted in their largely instrumental tsunamis of sound.

It seems pointless to pick out specific songs, for Man Of Aran‘s strength is its wholeness – to choose highlights would be like picking out your favourite raindrops in a summer shower. Instead, all you can do is lie back on an imaginary bed of pebbles and let the likes of ‘Spearing The Sunfish’ and ‘No Man Is An Archipelago’ wash over you as they evoke the strong smell of kelp, the screech of a distant seagull high up overheard.

As an album Man Of Aran works well, but as a soundtrack to a film – a double package – it is as near perfect a depiction of coastal life as a George Mackay Brown poem or a Peter Maxwell Davies symphony. It is music and film in perfect symbiosis and should rightly be regarded as something of an understated classic.

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