Join Wales Arts Review every Friday as we count down the one hundred greatest Welsh albums of all time, as chosen by the Wales Arts Review team and friends of the Review. Week seven sees us count down from 40-31 of the greatest Welsh albums, taking in psych-folk, garage rock, electronica, rap and indie rock.
(1980, Universal Recordings)
The glorious melodrama of Visage’s debut album begins on the album cover with the dynamic pose of the dancers bent into each other’s arms. Just the look of it feels like there’s going to be steel-eyed glares within, emphasised cheekbones up high, and more than a few cans of hair lacquer. That’s right, Visage, maybe more than anyone else, signalled the entrance of the New Romantics from an explosion at stage left. It was Visage who cemented the attitude, the unwavering seriousness of the aesthetic, but also did the all-important bridging of the gap between who they were imitating and who they were actually being. Visage was originally born out of Midge Ure’s desire to create original music for his DJ sets in Soho in the late 70s, which included Steve Strange’s David Bowie and Roxy Music nights at Billy’s. Ure would soon depart to form that other NR megalith Ultravox, leaving Caerphilly boy Strange to mould Visage more into his own image for the next three decades. But that first album is almost entirely Strange anyway, in style and feel and vision – Ure brings his cool grasp of drama and synth etiquette, but Strange is front and centre. The album has a healthy Bowie-vibe, and plenty of that art house claustrophobia that gave early Roxy such a singular identity. But unlike other artists at the time stepping out of the post-punk sound and into synth pop (looking at you, Gary Numan) Visage never sound like a tribute act. There’s a good helping of other influences making their way through a surprisingly tight album. But for all the textures and nuances of Visage, its second single, “Fade To Grey”, is the song that will outlive us all. It has been streamed on Spotify, for instance, approximately 42 million times more than anything else on the album.
(2018, Turnstile Music)
A spoiler alert for the uninitiated, the first full length record from R. Seiliog (Robin Edwards) is not – I repeat not – a doze-fest. True, at a distance some of Megadoze might sound like the kind of watery ambience music placed in the background of meditation videos, but for those willing to stick in their earphones and crank it up to eleven an illuminating, borderline-psychedelic adventure awaits. Edwards’ craft is undeniable, the soundscape he creates here is one of propulsive electronic textures as beautiful and ornate as a flurry of snowflakes. The ambi-sonic world we’re beckoned into feels less like a journey and more like the concerted and in-depth exploration of a single area from a number of perspectives; there are peaks of tactile bass and electronic melody sequenced by deep-sea dives into luminescent synth-based ambience. Over the course of its nearly hour-long running time, Megadoze oozes and shifts through a number of moods, never mottled by impatience or a temptation to linger too long. Compelling and artful – this record is undulating without ever feeling amorphous. A truly brilliant work of electronic bliss.
(2016, Banana & Louie Records)
Bendith is, so far, the solitary collaboration between Welsh folk duo Plu and Carwyn Ellis (the main man behind Colorama). It’s a meeting of minds as well as styles, and in Bendith the merger has created an album of shimmering beauty and intimate musical alcoves. The instrumentation is wonderfully loose and warm, and every note is steeped in the folded chapters of the history of British folk music. The revival of the 60s looms large – you can’t escape that languid feel of Pentangle or the Watersons – but there is a beautiful mistiness to it, too, that makes this very much an album that stands not on the shoulders of giants, but its own two feet. The highlights, as ever, are often found in the harmonies of Plu’s Elan and Marged Rhys, but they are underpinned by the sensuous arrangements by Ellis and third Plu member Gwylim Rhys. It’s not quite the indie pop-meets-Welsh language folk you might expect from a collaboration of Plu and Colorama, but both acts seem to pull the other into rich areas. It’s a surprisingly cinematic album, even in its quieter moments.
Legend has it that Meic Stevens could have been the next Bob Dylan, or bigger than Dylan. He turned his back on the showbiz of the global music industry to concentrate on singing only in Welsh, sharing his time between Wales, Brittany and many other places – a real life troubadour. In 1970, he released Outlander on the Warner Bros label, then walked away from his contract. As a kid growing up there were rumours that Meic had released an album in English, which was quite difficult to get your hands on, but now, one of the few benefits of streaming sites, is that rare gems like this one are available for mainstream listening once again. A combination of early acid folk, psychedelic world music (complete with sitars and tablas) and elegiac folk guitar the album is a real gem. ‘Dau Rhosyn Coch’ is a good pointer to where Meic would go on his Welsh language classic Nos Du, Nos Da, and must have been a first for Warner Bros to include a Welsh language track on an album. ‘Yorric’, ‘Rowena’ and ‘The Sailor and Madonna’ are other stand out tracks, but I chose Outlander for its mythical status and the ‘What if…’ that remains if Meic would have pursued this more ‘mainstream’ English-language direction. A psychedelic acid-folk classic.
Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens
(2017, Smalltown Supersound)
Not all debuts are made equal – and this first solo outing from Kelly Lee Owens sits in the effervescent, higher realm of triumph and glory. A gorgeous, dream pop record suffused with Owens’ ethereal, cooing voice – her singing runs like a golden thread throughout the whole of this eponymous first record, the journey taking in in its scope everything from Tibetan singing bowls to strobe techno beats. The album more than likely owes its existence to Owens’ fateful meeting with Daniel Avery and Ghost Culture (James Greenwood) while working across a scattering of record stores. Certainly, the pair helped nurture Owens’ techno sensibilities and the trio’s collaborations have criss-crossed each other more than once since. Yet, showing confidence from the first, what’s remarkable about this record is Owens’ confidence in stamping her subaqueous soundscape with turns which are notably her own. Certainly, these aren’t tracks that demand fog on the dancefloor – though they hardly rule it out, either – instead it is the kinetic energy flowing throughout sequential tracks which keeps the listener engaged, Owens’ synth melodies and low-key techno beats like a silver stream burbling in the moonlight. With hindsight we might view this record as the first stepping stone in a career which, merely four years on, already feels formidable.
Super Furry Animals
(2003, Sony Music)
The sixth album from SFA, Phantom Power is an LP recorded and released by a band uncovering a new kind of confidence – one empowered by a deeper knowledge of their own sound and influence, the album coming off the back of the somewhat divisive glitter of Rings Around the World. With at once more consistency and less polish, Phantom Power does away with the choppier seas of genre swapping and sonical wrongfooting, instead sloping towards a newly harmonised spread of sound less electronic and more wholesome than what came before. The familiar Brian Wilson/Beach Boys influence continues with richly melodic songs bright with harmonic flair – as on tracks such as ‘Venus and Serena’ – while singles like ‘Golden Retriever’ happily filled the stopgap for a frivolous, lolliping single. Yet what is most remarkable about Phantom Power is its hidden depths, glistening beneath the easy listening of a few forgettable tracks is the genius of songs like ‘Slow Life’ and ‘Bleed Forever’ – Gruff Rhys’ advancing lyrical skill reflecting with equal poise and absurdity on the war-shadowed time of its release. Organic, optimistic and deceptively easy-going, there’s no denying the greatness of Phantom Power.
Seeking New Gods
(2021, Rough Trade)
As concept albums go, even for Gruff Rhys the Mount Paektu volcano situated on the North Korea-China border feels like a rather strange starting point. Originally intended to be the heart of the thing, Rhys ultimately ended up using the concept more as a springboard than a scaffold for the record. The result is a broad stroke, thematic exploration of life and death which sometimes places itself against an epic baroque pop bop while other tracks swirl down into singable, strumming psych-folk melodies. There won’t be any huge shocks for well-worn Rhys fans, yet what’s clear from Seeking New Gods is that, even after decades doing what he does, Rhys has never let the creative juices dry out or his pursuit of betterment dwindle. Led by Rhys on production – and with a hatful of Welsh collaborators spanning Lisa Jên and Stephen Black in the sonic mix – it is this album’s tightrope walk between a fine polish and raw edge which, in execution, gives it its brilliance. Generous, sprightly and accessible, it may not be one of Rhys’ more peculiar records, but it is – undoubtedly – one of his best.
(2018, Libertino Records)
A triumphant Welsh-language album from Carmarthen’s very own indie trio, Melyn is a shape-shifting, genre-defying record that is bold, brash and totally assertive in its own hybridity. The tracks here are prickly with post-punk riffs, fuzzy guitars and howling lyrics – some sit comfortably in the corner of thrashing garage music, while others tilt more towards futuristic, synth-oriented tones. Influences are splattered across this record like paint marks – from Siouxsie to The Cure to Talking Heads – but never taint its pioneering sound with a divergence into the pastiche. From the prog-rock unfurling of opening track ‘Intro’ right through to the album’s close, a naturalistic track-to-track flow is harmonious and textured – Adwaith demonstrating a deft craftsmanship that even the promising single released prior to the LP couldn’t have foretold. From the Disintegration-esque Egyptian reggae of ‘Colli Golwg’ to the hypnotic insistence of ‘Y Diweddaraf’, it is – in hindsight – unsurprising that this debut took 2019’s Welsh Music Prize. Indeed, it’s harder to put it better than Huw Stephens did in announcing the album’s win: “beautiful music that captures what it’s like to be young, female, frustrated and bewildered at the world we live in.”
Slow Dazzle is Cale’s love letter to classic rock n roll, often raw, often euphoric, often gritty, often elegiac. From “Mr. Wilson” drawing lines between Cale’s Welsh roots and the California-ness of the music of the Beach Boys’ maestro, to the playful experiments with the classic wordplay of the genre in “Dirty Ass Rock n Roll” Slow Dazzle is a layered unpicking of the music that connected Cale to Lou Reed back when they met in New York in the early sixties and formed the Velvet Underground. At the time Reed was writing teenage ditties for Pickwick Records and Cale was an atonal viola player in the experimental collective, the Dream Syndicate. On Slow Dazzle, such sonic complications are replaced by simple driving piano and twelve bar melodies (although this is always lifted by high energy performances). The complications here – as Cale is never simple – is that it’s an essay as well as a love letter to the form of music that has played such an important role in his career. The songs are sharp and frequently excellent, the band is tight (unsurprising considering people like Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, and Chris Spedding play on it) and play somewhere between the swagger of T-Rex and the sound that someone like Elton John was creating at the time. Slow Dazzle ends with the spoken word tableau “The Jeweller” which reinforces Cale’s love of good, seedy literature, underpinned by Eno’s ambient drone. But the highlight of the record is without a doubt his take on “Heartbreak Hotel”, the song that started it all; it’s one of the greatest cover versions in the history of rock n roll.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
When asked the origin of their name, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci vocalist Euros Childs answered that ‘we might as well stick with the most ridiculous crap name we could think of’. This sense of playful irreverence was absolutely part of the band’s appeal, but it also downplayed the skill invested in their finely crafted tunes. In Gorky 5, the bilingual group continued to offer psychedelic folk music with pop sensibilities, a hybrid which produced both gentle melodies and poetic lyrics. ‘Let’s Get Together (In Our Minds)’ was a single release and remains the album’s high-point – for its rousing chorus and the bittersweet sentiment that underpins it – but there are also several underrated songs hidden throughout. ‘Tsunami’ is haunting, making great use of the band’s instrumental variety and ‘Theme from Gorky 5 – Russian Song’ is a buoyant pastiche that highlights their self-referential sense of humour. By their fifth album, the expectation is usually that a band might be running out of creative fuel, either retreading previous successes or embarking upon misguided experimentation. Gorky 5 is neither, but instead an example of a band confident and successful in their established style. It’s just a shame about the album cover.
Join us next week for 30-21 in the Wales Arts Review 100 Greatest Welsh Albums of All Time.
List compiled by Wales Arts Review and friends of the Review. Words by Cath Holland, Tilly Foulkes, Caragh Medlicott, Gray Taylor, Nerys Williams, Craig Austin, Jude Rogers, Jack Boyce, Gareth Smith, Tomos Williams, and Gary Raymond.