Bendith : Bendith07.10.2016 : Agati Records
Collaborations can be musically productive whilst not testing the boundaries of the partners' existing work, for example - reaching back cautiously into heavy metal archaeology, with no spandex involved - in 1981 Motörhead and Girlschool combined for the St Valentine's Day Massacre EP. The result was fast and incendiary, but musically was exactly what you would have anticipated from their temporary union - apart from the dressing up as gangsters on the cover, and you'd only need to have known the EP's title to guess that.
The debut Bendith album isn't so readily aligned with preconceptions.
In truth the project is a collaboration that extends beyond the two bands involved at its core (Plu and Colorama). Georgia Ruth and Patrick Rimes, amongst other guests, and most crucially the arranger and producer Mason Neely, also leave their mark on the sound. Whatever the components brought together for the task, the final result is that Bendith is unexpectedly pastoral and almost orchestral in places; a genuine creative departure that still retains the songwriting craft evident in Colorama, and the inventiveness and beatific harmonies of Plu. It is a gorgeous set of songs.
In English 'bendith' means 'blessing'. The album expresses warm childhood memories and is decidedly autumnal in the way it is imbued with reflection and reminiscence. It was initiated by Colorama's Carwyn Ellis; it is his recall of time spent in Carmarthenshire as a child that has sparked most of the songs. It is also Carwyn who has, with Mason Neely, largely overseen their final orchestration after the initial recording sessions.
Bendith is an album hard to pick apart for highlights as in one piece it feels complete, with the central theme of the emotional significance of a cherished place unifying it.
The first track, Dinas, is an instrumental meditation inspired by the Dinas Valley; with a single repeated note it is metronomic at first - marking time passing - then mesmeric, with harp, acoustic guitar, piano, a short section of choral harmony, and cello all processing through the melodic duties. It is followed by the second single from the album, Mis Mehefin (June), which is an instant folk/pop classic - structured as short couplets each conjuring up a sense of the month, followed by the beguilingly sung 'Mis Mehefin' refrain.
The third track is the first single released, Danybanc, it's easily the most upbeat song here (and the one that could be slipped unobtrusively onto a Colorama album). Danybanc was written (and is sung) by Carwyn Ellis about his grandparents' house - and the affection he feels is distilled into the song, in his own words:
"I adored going there for weeks over school holidays when I was young. I've moved about so much, Danybanc, in Dinas valley near the village of Trelech in Carmarthenshire, was the only constant place in my life."
The pace slows for the soft-hued ballad Angel, which has guitar and sublime harmonies to the fore - an exquisite composition about a 'guardian angel' figure representing family love, and the feeling of protection it gives. Angel seems to offer a glimpse of the true heart of the other songs here.
Taking the mood back to endless summer holidays, Ffynonlefrith is a bright, acoustic guitar led instrumental, and then, with a quietly tinkling piano guiding the vocals, Lliwiau ('Colours') is the most Plu-like song here, and would have sat well on their 2015 release Tir a Golau.
Once Lliwiau has faded there's a trio of more exploratory compositions: Y Gyfrinach ('Secret') is a delicacy with a nostalgic, mournful tone, emphasised by strings, sung by Elan Rhys. This spirit and form carries into the next track, Dan Glo; Marged Rhys and Carwyn Ellis share vocal duties, and there is refined interplay between voices, piano and strings.
The mood then shifts again, as the traditional folk song Pan Own Y Gwanwyn has a dramatic frame of mind - in atmosphere it's a haunted love song, unsettlingly without a frame of discernible rhythm, with an organ playing under the ethereal vocal. It all comes to a close with a final instrumental, Bendith, a softly lilting piano measuring out the joy in good fortune.
It's the musicianship, arrangement of instrumentation, and especially the vocals, that make Bendith special. It's not what you might have expected - although there's a definite alt. folk / pop core in some of the compositions, there's an understated symphonic feel in others. There are some great individual songs (Mis Mehefin and Angel) but it works best listened to end-to-end, when it manages to be both elegant and instinctive.
Buy a physical copy and even the packaging is striking - the outer cover unfolds to reveal a four panel panorama of the Dinas Valley (the inspiration of much of the writing) by Asami Fukuda. This care and lavishness is more than justified; Bendith is an entrancing album, a blessing indeed.
There is a companion interview with Plu about the making of the Bendith album here.
BENDITH I Mis Mehefin