Rough Trade, 2009
Eccentric English quartet British Sea Power have followed in the footsteps of the Pet Shop Boys with Battleship Potemkin by writing and recording a new soundtrack for the renowned 1934 dramatised documentary Man of Aran, by the late American film-maker Robert J. Flaherty. Filmed in black and white, Aran presents daily life on the inhospitable Aran islands on the west coast of Ireland.
British Sea Power have shown great respect for the film with their evocative and at times, stirring approach, accenting the bleak, barren surroundings and the primitive existence of the people of Aran. Starting with the wash of the ocean and delicate repeated piano figure of the title track, the soundtrack gradually brings more instruments into play. Short shards of guitar feedback and extraneous noise run parallel with on-screen movement and moments of drama are accented with a barrage of percussion and increasing tempo. In one particular scene, a family rush to pull in one of their fishing nets from being swept away. Here piano is joined with violin and guitar in high energy swirl, building to an epic crescendo with the splash of the cymbals timed perfectly with the crash of waves upon rock.
In what is ultimately more a curious historical document than a compelling documentary, British Sea Power do manage to imbue some life and atmosphere into the often treacherous, unwelcoming environment. Tender violin pieces recall Dirty Three at their most serene. Interspersed with staged pieces and scenes of daily life of farming, fishing and cooking, the band contribute one vocal piece entitled “Come Wander With Me” that accompanies a family collecting seaweed they pile on the backs of the horses as they pull them along the beach. Both haunting, sad and beautiful, it and much like the rest of the soundtrack, rarely seems out of context within the images presented.
Much like “Come Wander With Me”, the playful waltz of “The Currach” offers some variation in style, and adds colour to the monochrome mundanity but still remains sympathetic to the theme of the film and evocative of their daily struggle to maintain to feed and provide for the people of the island. A fishing expedition for basking sharks forms the central piece of Man of Aran. Dramatically intercut with images of the men in torrid battle with the shark and matched with a suspenseful jabs from an electric guitar and an intense percussive backing, it’s a highly charged piece.
Such a marginal project is likely to earn British Sea Power few favours or fanfare, but it’s an admirable and selfless attempt at bringing attention to a piece of forgotten celluloid. Separated from the film, the soundtrack is equally a compelling listen, reminiscent on the whole of the work of Explosions in the Sky, and a justified release on its own. Packaged together with the re-scored Man of Aran DVD (which contains three separate versions of the soundtrack), plus the soundtrack by itself on CD, there’s more than enough incentive to get acquainted with the Man of Aran.