Back from the land of prog I felt confident given the subject of ‘something new’ I could bring that something….that something being the Welsh/Cornish language synth-pop of one Gwenno of course. The album was released in 2015. Gwenno was the former front of the 60s revivalist girl pop band The Pipettes.
I was drawn some months after seeing her support Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) to buy this album, although it was not an immediate purchase. I have an in-built defence mechanism against buying albums based on live performances. Too many times I’ve been left wondering why I parted with my money, or why caught up in the occasion I thought the band would be able to translate my drunken euphoria onto hard media. In my experience buying from the stand at the gig itself is a terrible mistake. So rarely does the artist live up to the occasion. In general I prefer to hear the record before the live performance. Even seeing Pulp support St Etienne live some years ago didn’t immediately convince me to part with money for any of their records. Slowly I was enticed in to ‘His ‘n Her’s’, and the rest is history. So, here I stood, entranced by the lights and sounds of Gwenno. Only her and a computer to make the most bewitching, subtle ethereal sounds I have heard in a long time….12 months later I’ve overcome my own defence mechanism….
Y Dyadd Olaf is supposedly about “importance of preserving cultural identity in order to resist corporate death” (thankyou Pitchfork). To be honest this is one of those albums where I don’t really need to know what the songs mean. Much like the Cocteau Twins, the sounds are able release feelings within me that speak louder than words. They go deeper than any so-called meaningful message or sentiment. The title of the album is named after Owain Owain’s Welsh sci-fi novel about robots turning humans into clones. Again, this information is not necessary for me to enjoy this album. Maybe it is important for others. But surely with so few Welsh speakers, and even fewer purveyors of the Cornish tongue (the last track ‘Amser’ is in Cornish), you have to ask whether access to Gwenno’s recording requires that understanding anyway.
Much of it has an 80s synth-pop feel to it, which is readily accessible and recognisable. ‘Y Dydd Olaf’, the title track, has this in spades around the middle half to the end of the song. But the tone is hushed throughout, reminscent in places of Stereolab. The vocals are flat and indifferent. Almost heavenly tones sound like music beamed between the stars themselves, particularly effective on the panting and space like ‘Golau Arail’. ‘Patriarchaeth’ has a sound that recalls Broadcast. There’s almost the feel of Japrock (perhaps Shonen Knife?) on ‘Stwff’ where the Welsh could well be just about any exotic language. It seems perfectly in place with the rhythm and timing of the slightly off-kilter keyboards, adding to the ethereal feel. At the end of ‘Stwff’ there are sounds reminiscent of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who famously borrowed his music from the far-east. But all of it is very subtle. You have to listen hard here, and the joy only comes after closer inspection. Definitely a grower.
So, I would say that this album has in fact exceeded my initial impressions of Gwenno at that gig down in the Pheonix last year. The live experience was more immediate. The recording however is subtle, requiring patience. If you don’t have that virtue it will pass you by, having turned your back, like a shooting star in the night….
Tom listened: As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m a sucker for Welsh women. However, the one I married differs from Gwenno in that she wouldn’t have a clue about the meaning of any of the songs on Y Dyadd Olaf. Musically I find myself pulled in the direction of our celtic neighbours, especially when they decide to sing in their native tongue; there’s something romantic and beguiling and vaguely exotic about all those throaty, rasped consonants…and long words completely devoid of vowels. I hate vowels. They are definitely my five least favourite letters, and therefore, Welsh is about the best language there is! So Y Dyadd Olaf hit my sweet spot and sounded to me like a more polished and considered bedfellow of Cate Le Bon’s recent output. A good choice Steve…and definitely not prog enough to cause any problems.
Nick listened: Nice synths.