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 four sees us count down from 70-61 of the greatest Welsh albums, taking in folk, metal, hip-hop, and some indie classics.
Hippies Vs Ghosts
(2015, Ghosts Vs Hippies)
Hippies Vs Ghosts is the side project of We Are Animal guitarist and vocalist Owain Ginsberg, but it has that dubious honour of perhaps showcasing Ginsberg’s talents in a more focussed and sustained way than the eclectic vision of the central We Are Animal project. It’s supposed to be the other way round. But Droogs, from 2015, is a sharp and energising record, drawing on a primal understanding of rock, psychedelia, and psych. Sprinkles of math rock give it a prog vibe it wears well in places, and other times you’re getting flavours of some of those great guitar bands of the noughties such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and, yes, the Super Fury Animals. But perhaps the most enjoyable comparison is to Australian uber-prolific nutjobs King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Droogs has that bombastic insanity streaked through its entirety. It also has some killer riffs and, as exemplified on “Wazo”, “Shinjuku Strut”, and the title track, one of the best bass sounds this side of a Black Sabbath record. As the album progresses from thunking jam sessions, we are also introduced to some trance loops played out in analogue on tracks like “Y trydan o fewn”, like it’s an old Cluster or Neu record, and then onto something approaching psych-folk in “Amazing Invasion (let’s invade)”. But, I promise you, none of this feels overdone, none of it feels out of place. Droogs is a superb album, and quite the journey.
Blue Rondo à la Turk
Chewing the Fat
(1982, Cherry Red Records)
In countdowns such as this, there are always a few entries whose links to its prevailing theme can be described as tenuous at best. And Chewing the Fat might well have been one of these had its cultural driving force not been such a swaggering exemplifier of small-town aspiration and a make-things-happen Merthyr magician. Signed to a mega-bucks deal with Virgin in the early 1980s on the back of some blistering live showcases, Blue Rondo – whose very name instantly summoned up a stylistic obsession with the jazz age – burst on to the cover of The Face with a stated goal of ‘bringing back showbiz’. At the band’s helm stood Mr Chris Sullivan esq., the unapologetic south Wales valley boy and latter-day Soho dandy. A man who had corralled this fluctuating collective of jazz/salsa/latin musicians via an innate sense of purpose and an uncompromising obsession with street style and pop modernity that he shared with fellow valley boy, and one-time sofa-surfing flatmate, Steve Strange.
This is an album to listen to while wearing high-waisted peg trousers, a pristine white Hell’s Kitchen vest, and a four-foot-long wallet-chain hanging out of one pocket. Despite being written off by many as a stylistic diversion too far, and an archetypical more-money-than-sense record company folly, it remains one of the finest party albums of this, or any other, era. It almost certainly works better in a sweat-drenched Soho basement club than in your airpods on the bus into town, but enjoy it wherever you get the opportunity to. ‘Cos that club in Soho I mentioned? Well, if Chris is on the door, and you’re not dressed to his extremely exacting standards, then you’re not getting in.
Super Furry Animals
Rings Around the World
Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around the World marked a number of firsts for the band. It was their first album for a major record label. The first album to be released on both CD and DVD simultaneously. And it was, according to Mojo, SFA’s “first truly flawless album” (unsurprising, then, that Mojo later named it their album of the year). Now twenty years old, Rings Around the World is just as fresh and frenetic as it was on its release two decades ago. Up to 2001, SFA had characterised themselves as cheeky musical pranksters with political promo and raw alt-pop music that had distinct Britpop undertones (without ever quite tipping over the edge). Blending in their new big budget outlook with craft and orchestration (where before there was chaos and art splatter), Rings Around the World remains a timeless record dense with Gruff Rhys’ signature satirical flavour, a mystical shadow of strangeness, and an accessibility that isn’t disrupted by the pockets of Brian Wilson-esque skitter and swirl. Bold and bountiful, Rings Around the World is indeed a rich sonic tapestry.
(2021, No Sleep Records)
Andrew Ogun’s debut solo album Flight Mode is a beautiful, soulful hip hop record that shimmers with lyrical honesty. There is little time here for the puffed out chests or the posturing often found in the form; Ogun’s perspective is acutely from the heart. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact Ogun is a poet and he sees the distinction between poet and rapper very clearly. The way he builds effects and layers images is a poet’s bread and butter, something that can be lost in performance, but on Flight Mode Ogun finds an easy bridge to bring the best out of both worlds. It’s a marvellously relaxed record, beautifully produced and poised. It was inspired by time he spent living in Berlin after university, and the album drips with the type of multicultural cool you might associate with that city. It’s an album filled with references to great black poets who have gone before, as well as hip hop masters, kings of pop, and jazz composers – Ogun knows how to place himself in a tradition – and also to the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter (Ogun was the main organiser of the Gwent BLM movement), but none of this is banner waving; rather it is interweaved with deeply personal reflections on Ogun’s own journey to finding his feet as an artist. For all that, Flight Mode is first and foremost and excellent hip hop record. The future is very bright indeed for Andrew Ogun.
So the story goes, Robin Edwards, a.k.a. R.Seiliog, was born in the basement of a watchmaker in north Wales, which may or may not account for his artistic preoccupations with syncopated rhythms, loops, and the deep dive spirals found in his music (ignore the inconvenient fact this story isn’t entirely true). R.Seiliog is Wales’s most accomplished ambient composer, but he also has what it takes to fill a dance floor with a driving, epic hook. His 2014 debut album, In Hz flits dizzyingly between the two spheres, one minute nodding to Eno, the next a quasi-spiritual arms in the air vibe from the European megaclubs. It’s closest cousins can be found in the works of artists like Sweden’s mercurial Axel Willner (“Constellation Drip” could easily fit on an album by The Field) or maybe even Boards of Canada (particularly the “Peripheral Thermal” tracks). If ambient music that segues easily and frequently in to straight up House is your thing, then In Hz is made for you. If not, there is enough to occupy anyone with an interest in electronica. As a debut album, In Hz managed to both confirm and confound the expctations laid out with earlier projects and water-testing EPs by Edwards, but more than anything it announced a major electronic artist had taken to the stage, whether he’d emerged from a watchmaker’s basement or not.
Hermits on Holiday
(2015, Heavenly Recordings)
Off the back of her breakthrough & arguably most accessible album Mug Museum in 2013, Cate Le Bon could’ve easily taken the straight path to indie superstardom. Instead she took the path least travelled and most interesting, teaming up for her first collaborative record – or, a ‘solo project with one mouth, one set of lungs, one mind and four legs’ as they put it – with one-time The Fall member, frequent music-maker with Ty Segall and mastermind behind White Fence, Tim Presley. The title is indicative of the overall record feel; two weirdos mucking about, seemingly having a terrific time & falling into a wormhole together. More straight-forward tracks make way for bizarre, free-form psychedelia that spirals around and around with utter delight. Sometimes spurting lyrical gold, other times Le Bon keeps nudging: “Tim, Do I Like That Dog?”. It’s fantastically weird & eclectic, but that’s why the record is such a listenable delicacy. Hermits On Holiday feels like having a spaced out whale of a time the night before, before trying to explain the joke the next day to someone who wasn’t there. Luckily, we get to relive this absurd joyousness with every spin.
Y Dydd Olaf
(2015, Heavenly Recordings)
Whilst Gwenno had been working within music for a while before her actual debut solo full-length arrived in 2014, Y Dydd Olaf seemed to come out of nowhere. Releasing a few solo works in the early 2000s before a spell in The Pipettes, Y Dydd Olaf may be one of the greatest reintroductory/debut records of the 2010s, and possibly even further out. Inspired by Owain Owain’s 1976 novel of the same name – a book indebted to the future dystopia outlined in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – Gwenno soars with vocals crying out for revolution & igniting a spark of light to rally against the darkness. The production fits the bill too; an immaculately produced foundation with thanks to Peski Records leader Rhys Edwards (Jakokoyak), spurring mechanical interjects into spacey krautrock-indebted synth-pop that inspires both hope for the future & fear of the current climate. An important record with a heart that yearns for the preservation of culture with eyes firmly on the future. Which artist could you point to that has had such a significant impact that they would go on to spark a huge uptake in a minority language learnership?
Way Beyond Blue
(1996, Warner Bros)
Many see Way Beyond Blue as an LP only in name, taking the majority of its tracklist from a whole host of singles and B-side tracks that appeared on Catatonia’s earlier EPs. Still, after signing to Warner Bros, each pre-existing track came back swinging on Way Beyond Blue with new, richer aural textures and the high-shine swish that comes with signing to a major label. An assortment of punk-leaning jangle pop numbers with the occasional thrash of late ‘80s guitar, Cerys Matthews’ vocals offer a layering of thick syrup with the occasional rough of honeycomb, making Way Beyond Blue nothing if not easy to enjoy. Its plethora of radio-ready numbers and the top 40 success of ‘You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For’ make it a whiz-through listen from start to close, the tracks slipping by on the easy thrum of Mark Roberts’ shimmery guitar. It might not have brought fans much in the way of new innovations, but there’s no doubt that Way Beyond Blue delivers on all the things that gave Catatonia studio success after their inception in the ‘90s. The whole tied up with the background drama of Clancy Pegg – Cataonia’s keyboard player fired prior to the recording of the band’s formal debut – Way Beyond Blue will long remain in the historic halls of Welsh alt-rock lore.
(2020, Hakuna Kulala)
For years, nomadic producer & lyricist Elvin Brandhi has staked a claim as one of the most essential sound artists around today, not due exclusively on her solo work but her madcap collaborations that spring up seemingly out of thin air. Not content only recording in motorway-side carparks and in a Renault Clio in father-daughter duo Yeah You, or collaborations with the likes of Daniel Blumberg & Bashar Suleiman, Brandhi found herself in Kampala, Uganda within the compound of acclaimed experimental label Nyege Nyege plus imprint Hakuna Kulala. Warped, glitched out electronics & field recordings clash with improvisational vocals, yelps and exclamations from Ugandan MCs Hakim & Swordsman Kitala alongside Brandhi herself, plus exhilarating Central/East African rhythms that ground the record to its birth location whilst simultaneously pushing it into the stratosphere. Headroof is a record that cohesively bridges together worlds whilst finding a whole new plane of existence in the meantime. One of the most brilliant group efforts in experimental music of modern times.
(2016, Strangetown Records)
This much-anticipated self-titled debut album from Baby Queens proved that a band can quite easily be both jack of all trades and master of every single one of them, to boot. Suffused with genre-bending hypno-harmonies which stretch through ethereal R’n’B hooks to licks of ‘70s late-radio guitar and reggae beats, Baby Queens is an album of lush sonic harmony with many a strange and beautiful flower blossoming in its garden. By the time of the album’s release in 2016, Baby Queens as a girl band had already organically grown into the collective consciousness of the Cardiff music scene with captivating live shows and irresistible singles. The arrival of their debut album delighted more than a few devotees, the record itself moulded into precise and polished production by none other than Cian Ciarán, Super Furry Animals’ multi-instrumentalist keyboard player. At once nostalgic and trailblazing, Baby Queens pushes and prods you – just when you think you’ve got it pinned down it pivots the other way, with tone shifts from trip-hop and electronic percussion driving into the Motown gospel of ‘By the River’ to the penultimate track ‘Red Light’ (the band’s first-ever single which still feels fresh in its soulful and eclectic LP cushioning). Lyrically lovelorn, sonically soaring – an album of deft skill and unquestionable significance, it is an essential contribution to the many brilliant Welsh records released in the 2010s.
Join us next week for 60-51 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.