9Bach : Anian2016 : Real World
I first saw 9Bach accidentally years ago at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen; even in passing it was hard not to be impressed by Lisa Jên's voice and stage presence. Much later coming back from a winter walk picking around the slated edges of the Ogwen valley and co-incidentally listening to their debut album for the first time, I felt a further visceral connection to the music.
Anian, 9Bach's third album, is a step on from Tincian, the award winning 2014 first outing on the Real World label. The CD is beautifully produced. The design of the gatefold cover lets you feel you are holding an artefact of substance, not a million miles away from holding a vinyl album cover, and a rare experience with a CD.
There is also a companion disc and booklet - Yn dy lais / In your voice - in which writers, actors, poets and musicians (including Maxine Peake, Rhys Ifans and Peter Gabriel) interpret the songs to make them more accessible to non-Welsh speakers; but In your voice is a lovingly curated and layered project in itself, collaborative and expansive, and not just a translation add on.
So, to the album itself. It is moodier, and feels more orchestral in its composition than Tincian, although often scantly instrumented and percussive. Traditional song structures are artfully stretched. It also has a wider range of influences, especially later in the set.
Listened to with headphones in one sitting it is utterly enchanting.
It definitely works best as a complete end to end work, but there are still a good few pivotal, standout songs:
The opening track Llyn Du is a song 'sung by the queen of the black lake, queen of Snowdonia'; it has a haunting, ethereal vocal over a persistent, dark undercurrent of a bass line to go with the frozen desperation of her story.
The seven minute setting of the traditional song Si Hwi Hwi is hypnotic from the start with looped voices, then has a more compressed feel as a slave ship drum rhythm seeps in to count down the time. What it achieves is to evoke the emotion and anguish of a mother holding her child for the last time the night before she is sold into slavery (which is the lyrical theme); it is experimental, but affecting and brilliant (no less so than the very different reading Huw M has given this song recently).
The layered, again seemingly looped, vocals of Heno create a precise trance like frame for a poem by Gerallt Lloyd Owen, 'a lament for the Welsh nation'.
The album closes with Breuddwyd y Bardd - a traditional song representing the last thoughts of a dying poet, and sees Lisa Jên singing strikingly over a stark but effective guitar (perhaps a half speed mogadonned early Billy Bragg).
In places Anian does seem like art for art's sake, but those are some of the most beautiful moments.
Aside from the award and recognition for Tincian, I am not sure this is folk music in any conventional sense, it has the instruments and a clear heritage in the songs, but it ties together too many influences and is too exploratory not to stretch that label to breaking point; but whatever the genre Anian manages to be challenging, experimental and a graceful triumph.
9BACH I Llyn Du