Toby Hay : The Gathering29.03.2017 : Cambrian Records
In his 1904 book, Das Land ohne Musik / Land Without Music, Oscar Schmitz said "to have music inside yourself ... means to possess fluidity, to slip one's moorings, to feel the world as a flow." If you have to pick one album released this year to illustrate the truth of Schmitz's statement, then The Gathering should be it.
The Gathering is made up of eight instrumentals, each built around Toby Hay's distinctive six or twelve string guitar part. Hay has been compared to Bert Jansch and John Fahey - Fahey offers the closer similarity, as there are clear commonalities in fingerpicking style and in their shared ability to conjure an ambience. An additional dimension is added to the recordings by the subtle, restrained contributions of Angela Chan (violin, viola, cello), Rob Bromley (violin) and Peter Scott (double bass).
Hay has not strayed far to spark his compositional imagination. Each track is inspired by a place near his mid-Wales home. This is the case from the opening Mayfair at Rhayader 1927, prompted into existence by archive footage of an early twentieth century town fair (film that is also convincing evidence that before television people mostly made their own fun with each other's hats), to the end-of-set title track - which is full of mournful yearning "about being hefted to a place and being taken from it".
Sketches of a Roman Fort and Claerwen constitute the centre of the album. The former is a mesmeric evocation of the atmosphere of an ancient site next to Hay's house. Claerwen, described as an "aggressively peaceful" place in the liner notes, is a location nearby, with a huge dam and even more imposing hills; to depict it for the record a sense of space and grandeur is contemplatively drawn in sound.
These two tracks, as with each and every one of the rest, demonstrate that Hay has a profound expressive ability to paint the colour and mood of an inspirational setting.
Toby Hay describes in the deftly framing sleeve notes (co-written with nature writer Robert Macfarlane) how he played an old arch top 1930s guitar for the vivid track Black Brook - "... a strange instrument that seems to have music already in it; you just have to let it out". That evident source puts it at odds with the rest of The Gathering, which feels like it seeped fully formed out of the ruins, earth, hedgerows and sky that surround Hay daily.
This is a radiant, beautiful album.
Wordless, the music presented here is as close and intricate an expression of place and its meaning as the Bendith album was last year. It matches that work with the heartfelt lyricism of its composition. The album has had many ecstatic reviews elsewhere - but the last thought on it should be left to Robert Macfarlane:
"I first listened to The Gathering late in the day, late in the year - the year of Trump, of Brexit, of tides of darkness rising fast on all sides. And for a bright hour, Toby Hay's music cast strong light, fought the shadows back a little."
TOBY HAY I Mayfair at Rhayader 1927
1. This quote is part of a longer one found in Rob Young's engrossing 600 page book Electric Eden, which traces the narrower orgins of modern English folk music.