The Gentle Good : Ruins / Adfeilion14.10.2016 : Bubblewrap
'The Gentle Good' - Gareth Bonello - has crafted another striking album, his fourth. Following the musically expansive release Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard), a collaborative project which saw him travel to China to deftly interweave traditions, Ruins is in many ways a return for inspiration to his own folk (revival) roots.
The title of this release comes from the idea that our freedom is bound by the ruins, both good and bad, of what previous generations have created. This loose philosophical concept threads through the otherwise disparate themes explored in the ten tracks. Bonello does not shy from looking out unerringly at the world; it's not going out on a limb to say that when he does what he sees doesn't always leave him content. At times there is a deploring edge to the voice of this album - a tone that has heritage in mid-60s folk songs, such as Bert Jansch's Needle of Death.
The sound and spirit of Ruins is evident quickly - the first track, Gwen Lliw'r Lili (Gwen colour of the Lilly), is a short traditional piece (which also appears on Gwilym Bowen Rhys' recent solo album) played on the harmonium, taken from the Maria Jane Williams Collection, 'Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg' (1844). It is followed by the doleful mood of Pen Draw'r Byd - described as a 'feminist zombie song' (a limited canon, to be fair, but a central addition to it none the less), lyrically it turns the conceit of a girl yearning for a sailor at sea on its head, but musically it has obvious folk antecedents.
This brings us to the first of the three standout tracks on the album, Rivers of Gold.
The power of the music of the second folk revival was often derived from its profound and lyrical expression of radical politics, and Rivers of Gold is the most gentle but vital return to this source. The song is an elegant filleting of the idea of pursuit of wealth for itself, and scorns the inequality it inevitably produces; 'Rivers of gold, What a sight to behold, They're the rivers that never will run.' The stance is one of profound disbelief rather than the splenetic mood of early politicised Dylan, but it is a lovely song that hits its mark, with soft-hued guitar and strings carrying the meandering flow of the world weary vocal.
The second standout is Ruins / Adefeilion, a six and half minute long instrumental. Ruins / Adefeilion starts subtly with a piano - bird song and thunder initially drifting and ebbing in the mix - then the playing becomes more impelled and dramatic, there's an atmospheric french horn section before piano and storm clouds return. It sits at the heart of the album, a masterly and evocative piece of music.
Paced at a slow march the affecting lament, Bound for Lampedusa, about the plight of travelling refugees, completes the trio. Lampedusa is an Italian island near Libya where Africans hopeful of finding asylum make landfall - although the lyric is explicit, lost at sea 'any shore will do'. This track is longer even than Ruins, and is written clearly from a heartfelt frustration with the lack of scaled government response to the evident humanitarian crisis. It eloquently and demonstratively takes the perspective of a refugee on a perilous journey; the string parts, played by The Mavron Quartet, and the brass, both written by Seb Goldfinch, acutely heighten the poignancy and pathos of the narrative:
'When the darkness yields to the daylight,
when the sea yields to the shore,
we'll be free or,
lost as driftwood,
on the waves for evermore.'
A sparkling Renbourn redolent guitar instrumental, Un i Sain Ffagan (One for Saint Fagans), written in homage to Bonello's former workplace, St Fagans National History Museum, leads to the last two pieces: The Fisherman, ('awake before sunrise, sweep the wood-smoke from my eyes') in part about the transience of life and Merch y Morfa (Estuary Girl), a harmonium elegy for his late grandmother.
An adept and varied album in its moods, instrumentation and themes - this is real contemporary folk. As much as the politics there's authentic emotional heft in these songs - Ruins is a captivating, serene but provoking work; which you would imagine is exactly the intent and hope.
THE GENTLE GOOD I The Fisherman