Gwilym Bowen Rhys : O Groth y Ddaear2016 : fflach:tradd
O Groth y Ddaear is Gwilym Bowen Rhys' first solo LP, and despite his existing profile in the indie-pop band Y Bandana and his part in the alt. folk sibling trio Plu, he has produced a work grounded in traditional folk. The album was launched in August 2016 at the National Eisteddfod (with all the musicians on the album present); I met him briefly in Caernarfon two weeks or so afterwards and he immediately explained how the recording came about:
"Plu formed when I had been singing in pop groups for six or seven years - I wanted to go in a more folky direction; I recruited Elan and Marged to help me, but very quickly it became obvious that they had had all this creativity bubbling away under the surface with no channel - so Plu became something for them and I could step back to a degree and just work on the music, working up their ideas, which I enjoyed."
"But I still wanted to look further into Welsh traditional music, which was new territory for me - it comes in waves and the last decade has been less fruitful than others, there's been less going into the heritage, the music and the lyrics."
Gwilym can talk with a great deal of knowledge and enthusiasm about the balance between contemporary and traditional music in Wales, explaining vividly where the latter's stock of songs comes from, and how they developed in a period when the Welsh language was ascendant. He also can enthuse at length about the depth and extent of the Welsh popular music scene (saying with glee at its variety - "There'll be more Welsh techno than folk released this year!"). Some of his pop sensibility does make it into this album, as he spelt out:
"I have made a conscious effort to make it fresh - it's old melodies and words, but I have tried to give it a contemporary mood. It's a real mix; new words and melodies put with old - it's a collage."
The first shock here is that Gwilym is only in his mid 20s; earlier in the year he performed solo at Sesiwn Fawr playing a collection of folk ballads unamplified but powerfully in a cafe - ribald, animated and authentic in his delivery - it seems hard to imagine he has not been at this half a lifetime. He laughed when I brought this gig up, saying:
"When I'm playing on my own in pubs I sing different songs - the rowdy, testosterone filled end of the folk spectrum. These songs (waving the CD) are subtler - and sophisticated!"
The new album has thirteen songs, all with detailed notes in Welsh and English that explain the context and background. Perhaps the nearest thing recently released to this collection is Chris Jones' Dacw'r Tannau, which sets a high bar to reach, but this set matches that album blow for traditional blow.
It starts with a short acappella song - Cwch Dafydd 'Rabar - about the legendary ferryman at the heart of Caernarfon; with new words to a traditional melody it sets the scene. The following song Canu'n Iach I Arfon (Farewell to Arfon) is a gentle, rolling paean to the strip of land between the Menai Strait and Snowdonia, by the third song Owain Lawgoch - words and melody written by Gwilym, about a Welsh hero who fought for the French in the 100 years war, alternating quiet verses with rousing, coruscating choruses - his stall has been properly set out, and the standard never slips.
The quality of collaborators is outstanding; Gwen Màiri Yorke's harp is plangent and precise throughout, Owain Llawgoch features Patrick Rimes (Calan) on a delightfully played whistle, elsewhere he contributes deft violin. Galargan is a lamenting duet with Gwyneth Glyn, as Gwilym exclaimed discussing this track "She is just a wonderful singer" - and there's no doubting that opinion, her contribution makes this a soulful song, a conversation with one person consoling another after the death of someone close. Galargan also exhibits the compositional craft found in many places on O Groth y Ddaear; the words are from an 18th century poem (the orginal work has 34 verses, there are 6 here) and they are set to the melody of an ancient Welsh carol.
There is a lovely set of tunes midway: Moel Rhiwen / Cam Deiniolen / Morgawr - the first two written by Gwilym, the last by Simon Owen. There's no possible conclusion other than this is a very good folk album; it has the life and lilt you expect from the best Irish folk. It has the polish of a contemporary songwriter, but if it is a collage of old and new you can't see the joins.
It's all sung in Welsh, and the songs' heritage is respected - as Gwilym stated some of them needed a lot of homework:
"There are so many traditional songs - in sense it is unquarried ground - the 80s was a big time for Welsh folk, but it has fallen away. There is a collection of field tracks, but it is hard to access."
"There are two songs on the album that have not been redone since they were field recordings - 'Bugail Hafod-y-cwm' was a field recording in 1954, and not recorded since. 'Y Gwydr Glas' - that version of the melody hasn't been done since a recording in Pen Llyn in the 1950s; I had to buy an album from the Smithsonian to get it."
"Llanerch-y-Medd was one verse on the National Museum website - I work with what they give me! (laughs). A lot of the others are me reading poetry and lyrics, and putting it with melodies."
The album fittingly closes with one of those resurrected songs - Y Gwydr Glas - a yearning, plaintive song from the Llŷn Peninsula, with just guitar backing and perhaps the strongest vocal of the whole collection.
When I spoke to him, Gwilym was about to embark on a month long minority-language tour including the Basque region of Spain, Galicia and Friesland in Holland - you can see why it is music that will travel. He will give the songs on this album further airing in the support slot on Calan's theatre tour in April 2017.
I played Dick Gaughan's Handful of Earth after listening to O Groth y Ddaear. That's an energised collection of songs, as if alive and fiercely proud of where they have come from, played with a real love of the music. This is a mellower set, but given just as much passion and attention to detail. It's an absurdly accomplished work to start a solo career with - in essence a folk album, but remarkable enough to appeal to those who scorn the genre. O Groth y Ddaear is immaculately done.