The legend that is Meic Stevens goes on at length in his interview with Huw Stephens for the Welsh-language music documentary, Anorac, claiming the only reason he was able to learn his trade, ply his trade, and live the authentic troubadour life in the 1960s was because of the purity of his destitution, sleeping on mate’s floors, borrowing clothes, borrowing guitars, even. Not only is it where his authentic vibe came from, it’s partly where the legend came from. “The Welsh Dylan”, no less. Amusingly, in the same interview a little bit later on, he is asked what he thinks needs to happen in order for Welsh-language music to prevail now. Without a beat Meic Stevens snaps back, “more money, more investment.” Nobody in the room seems to immediately grasp the incompatibility of the two ideas. But you cannot argue against the fact that time and time again great music comes from the young and hungry.
Young artists nowadays are more likely to borrow a friend’s Macbook Pro in order to make an entire album than they are to jump into someone else’s sheepskin coat to trek to an open mic. There is, in fact, probably several long and winding pieces to be written on the rise of Welsh electronic music, and how entire cathedrals of soundscapes can be summoned up from the bedroom. Just like in the 1960s when there were an insufferable number of Bob Dylan impersonators on the scene, now barely a day goes by when a new electronic album doesn’t drop. To put simply, democratisation that comes with the breaking of the shackles of money has always meant there is a lot of shit out there.
That’s not to say the cream of the crop is not good. Electronic music is where the most interesting music is being made at the moment, from synth-pop to ambient to dance, even when it’s heavily nostalgic. The latest album from Christine and the Queens is for the most part a straight love letter to Madonna (albeit a very accomplished one); John Hopkins’ Singularity (2018) is a fawning, swirling homage to big melodic dance music of the 90s. But there is still innovation. Eno continues to trot out albums that claw at the door of what we now think of as the parameters of ambient form. Four Tet never puts a foot wrong. In Wales, if we’re honest, in the last few years there has been Gwenno, and the best bits of Cotton Wolf, and then everyone else. So the bar, in 2018, is really very high. No longer can an artist just drop a retro disco beat and push some throbbing soundscapes over the top of it. Electronic music now works best when it has heart, like when New Order used to do it. The bar is so high it needs real ingenuity to get hairs to stand up on necks, to get toes to tap, to make you fall in love, like when the frontiers were still new.
Throw into this daunting, shimmering swampland, the debut album from Dutch-Welsh Angharad Van Risjwijk, or Accü as she goes by now. Formally half of Trwbador, who split in 2015, it feels as though Echo the Red has been a long time coming, but rather than work bloated with time, it feels like a record that has been painstakingly constructed. It is an album with heart, and one that displays a real mastery of the tools at hand in the electronic biosphere. Accü knows exactly what she’s doing, and, apparently, why she is doing it.
Echo the Red touches on many pigeonholes, and yet doesn’t rest at any of them. It has some of the lovely folds and turns of a Kraftwerk record, some of the considered tones of Eno; but it also has that French thing going on, and there is a quiet undertow of a north American vibe straight from the footlockers of Yo La Tengo. And it has a lot of fun with its psychedelic areas too – “Did You Count Your Eyes?” could have ricocheted off the walls of the UFO club. There are nods to The Dø, to Melody’s Echo Chamber, and to Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Accü comes out holding her own. In fact, she stands pretty tall.
This is an album full of quiet confidence, mixed with a labyrinthine delight in the processes of building a song, of layering the textures, feeding one noise into another to create a cumulative atmosphere. “Ha-Ha Higher” has a coruscating bass-drive to it; “Am Sêr” is a deeply sexy Europop tune masquerading as a polite little quirky single; “Mark on Baby” has the surface of a straight indie pop tune a la Charlotte Gainsbourg, but is actually built on a sequence of Velvet Underground-style guitar drones. This is an artist who has taken the time to think about where her influences fit best, rather than just coagulating them into an overwhelmed scream.
Arguably the centrepiece of the album, “Fever Streams” eschews any initial temptation to build to a melodic crescendo and instead goes to much more interesting places. The inclusion of a spoken word vocal from comedian Stewart Lee is a decent idea, but the words are cod-folksy-spiritualism and anyone who has ever seen Lee read so much as a shopping list in his stand-up will surely find it distracting once they recognise it’s him. But “Fever Streams” is otherwise a triumph, reminiscent of the “Sky of Honey” side of Kate Bush’s underrated Aerial album from 2005.
The odd little murmurs from Accü on the Welsh music scene over the last few years have suggested a good sound, and possibly a half-formed songwriter who would hopefully produce an album that would be the first step on a ladder, a curio, a pleasant footnote in a year of Welsh music. But Echo the Red is not that album. It is a sure statement by a fully formed artist; it is confident and intelligent, it runs on instinct as much as on the painstaking assembly of faculties. There is nothing to wait for from Accü; she is here, and her debut album is an absolute corker, full of ideas, attitude, and heart.
Echo the Red is available now from Libertino Records