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 two sees us count down from 90-81, taking in folk, metal, hip-hop, and some indie classics.
(2007, Wichita Recordings)
The songwriter and front man of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci has a rich discography of collaborations and side projects and solo recordings, but this oddity is perhaps one of his most overlooked offerings. An album of perfect ditties, echoing in the ghost of Beatles For Sale-era pop writing its simplicity might be the thing that makes the whole album pass you by. Songs like “Horseriding” and “Outside My Window” are beautifully stripped back, almost entirely dependent on melodious familiar directions of travel without ever being boring or derivative. But at the centre of the record is the sprawling, hilarious “concept song” that gives the album its title. At over fifteen minutes, “Miracle Inn” lies somewhere between Bowie’s “Station to Station” and “A Very Cellular Song” from the Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968). It’s a symphonic statement that takes us deep into the heart of the misty landscapes of Welsh mysticism, but always comes back to the catchy jumpy pop hook. The Miracle Inn sounds like a place to be – never a dull moment, and always warm and welcoming.
The Wishing Chair
Primarily now a drum & bass artist, Barry Town’s Skamma created a minor masterpiece of Welsh hip hop a few years ago when he released The Wishing Chair. It’s testament to his vast talent that this defining statement now feels like a distant sound from what his focus is now. But The Wishing Chair is an extremely satisfying, energising, sophisticated record. Skamma is an excellent rapper, and he balances humour with social commentary, the personal with the public, the hairpin bends of relationships with the consistent struggles of the Welsh working class experience, with an astonishing aptitude for natural cadences. It’s a smartly produced record, having no problem with dropping nods to the sounds of classic albums like Low End Theory (1991) and 36 Seasons (2014) among many others. It also showcases Skamma’s range as a lyricist and songwriter. “Daydream” and “Attack Mode” are colossal tracks, absolute bangers, whereas the title track and takes like “Bless You” display a rich understanding of the grooves of classic soul and R&B. If The Wishing Chair is the only hip hop album Skamma ever makes, he’s done us a huge favour. But we can all hope he’ll return to it in future.
With the one-off Zarelli project Carwyn Ellis steps away from the classic songwriting structure we’ve come to cherish in his prolific output with Colorama, and instead takes a sharp turn to create primarily a electronic sonic and deeply atmospheric soundscape to accompany Leonard Nimoy’s 1975 narration of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicle “There Will Come Soft Rains“. Bradbury’s sci-fi imaginings from 1950 of a nuclear apocalypse are made even more sobering as Zarelli echoes and emphasises the bleakness and tragedy of a destroyed world where incidental motions still take place. Garden sprinklers switch on automatically and are illustrated prettily; a normal everyday happening, whilst human life is unnaturally dead. A creepy, sobering almost drone gloom reflects the horror of the family’s dog left to starve to death then terrifyingly mysteriously incinerated; Bradbury clearly ignored the instruction that whatever an author does, he should never hurt a dog. Nimoy’s magnificent deep tones are familiar whilst the music bed carries moments of cool beauty, picking out what lives, wilful machinery carrying monotonous tasks no longer necessary to life. The apocalypse put to record in a very classy manner indeed.
In the Pink Condition
(2015, Heavenly Recordings)
For his full-length debut on Heavenly Recordings, H. Hawkline – moniker of Cardiff-based Huw Evans – would step up as one of the UK’s finest weirdo pop writers. It’s hard to seperate Evans with Cate Le Bon here, with the two being intimately intertwined and influencing each other within this part of their career. Le Bon would produce both In The Pink Of Condition and 2017 follow-up I Romanticize, while also touring together. The pair would establish themselves within the centre of the conversation of who was creating the best leftfield art rock within the mid 2010s. The result is a record filled with earworm hooks, angular guitar work and warm vocal lines that feel timeless yet modern, touching upon influences across hypnagogic pop, neo-psychedelia, jangle pop and garage rock. Evans’ accented vocals act as a beautifully sturdy anchor, with some unusual turns of phrase that somehow work as both incredibly catchy and hard to decipher lyrical curiosities perfect for liner note studying. An album that is easy to love and get lost in.
The George Harrison title track, which was, at the time, a much needed hit for Bassey, could be regarded as the calibre of song any old hack could take to the heights of the charts, but that would be to ignore the fundamental power of Bassey’s interpretation and the sumptuous, cheeky arrangement of album producer Johnny Harris. Opening the album, it also sets the tone for what is generally regarded as peak-Bassey. Her voice throughout is confident, bold, and often vulnerable – not necessarily something associated with Bassey’s performances. Harris treats every song with an admirable focus, trying to maintain familiarity whilst bringing something new to the table. It doesn’t always work (harpsichord on “My Way”?), but when it does there’s a lot going on to keep the attention. Bill Parkinson’s guitar work on “Spinning Wheel” is reminiscent of the sound of Bob Dylan’s recent Nashville Skyline (1969) record, and “The Sea and Sand” is a kicker of a single. But it all hangs on Bassey’s vocal. This is the testimony of the talent, the genius, that gave birth to the parody. Big, beautiful, and can bring a tear to the eye.
Manic Street Preachers
Everything Must Go
(1996, Sony Music)
When the newly three-piece Manic Street Preachers took to the stage of Wembley Arena in December 1995 – their first public appearance since the disappearance of Richey Edwards – it was with a hesitant “it’s only us”, rather than the scatter-gun pantomime bile that the band had become notorious for. As a last-minute support act for the rapidly imploding Stone Roses, the prospect of their next album becoming an all-conquering hit-heavy unit-shifter seemed a prospect as distant as the gap deliberately left between James Dean Bradfield and the empty space upon which their missing comrade had once stood.
You know what happened next, of course. A commercial trajectory initially kick-started by the majestic and unapologetic ‘A Design for Life’, one of the finest encapsulations of the British working-class experience. It succeeded in making the great mass connection that the band had always aspired to via an act of commercial and artistic rebirth that mirrored that of Joy Division/New Order – the Manics are nothing if not diligent students of British pop history. Laden with hits, it also features five songs underpinned by Edwards’ inimitable lyrics. Not least, the beautiful and haunting ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’. Not everyone was happy, of course. For the hardcore ‘cult of Richey’ fans, EMG still represents the point at which MSP dispensed with the eyeliner and boas and started dressing like squares; the initial stopping off point on the road to Dullsville, Arizona. For the band themselves, it represents the commencement of the giddy imperial phase of MSP Mk.2, an ‘escape from our history’.
(2012, Shape Records)
Even after two mini albums in 2010, Islet’s 2012 debut full length Illuminated People contains an energy often only found on that album: one of a young, hungry band pillaging their way through a plethora of sounds without pretence or over-thought. Illuminated People is a huge canvas with multiple touchstones stacked on top of each other. At its core a krautrock endebted psych trip, the record beautifully swoops, soars and dovetails through kaleidoscopic passages of crunchy fuzz, complex percussion and soft hazes. Even after multiple listens, the sheer volume of ideas at play allows it to surprise consistently. To hear a band able to deploy so many buoyant ideas within one package and make it stick the landing is astounding. Islet are a group with so much unabashed inventiveness: a truly special start to a recording career that continues to forge its own path to this day.
(1995, Earache Records)
Newport’s Dub War were one of the most innovative hard rock bands to come out of the 90s. Mixing metal, punk, reggae and plenty of other forms, they remain one of Wales’ musical success stories. Pain is the album that sounds the most timeless now from their short but intense period in the mid- to late-nineties when they were stalwarts of the rock circuit. Benji Webbe, before breaking off to form the even bigger and better Skindred in 1999, is yet to truly break out from his musical influences, but you cannot deny his raw energy is what makes Pain such a magnetic record. His voice moves from soaring rock god to gatling gun ferocity. The musicianship behind him is deceptively excellent, and the little slips from the headbanging riffs to mischievous breaks such as on “Strike It” and “Nations” really still make the head turn. Jeff Rose’s guitar work is packed with ideas, and although Pain is clearly the album with which Dub War was looking to break America (it is full of flashes of Guns n Roses and Soundgarden) the distinctive musical personalities of Webbe up front and Rose to his side mean this is an album that stands solid to this day. There are very few rock albums from the mid-nineties anywhere near as good as this one.
The Joy Formidable
Into the Blue
(2021, Hassle Records)
Into the Blue emerged from the flat plains and mountains ranges of Utah from Mold’s The Joy Formidable as a stern reminder what a great band they are. It’s an album full of rick little turns and alcoves of melodic rock. The guitar work is unabashed, and there are flashes of Muse, Mars Volta, and Queens of the Stone Age. No hiding the influences. You can’t help but get caught up in it; can’t help but strut the strut, pout the pout. It has that lovely spacious sound that used to sound like Kevin Shields with more oomph but now sounds like a conversation between band and mountain range. “Sevier” – the most QOTSA-y track on the album – epitomises the intensity of the album. “Gotta Feed My Dog” is an epic that brings Charlotte Gainsbourg most easily to mind. “Back to Nothing” has a beautifully sentimental riff but brings it up with such verve it could be a Bond song. And then there’s “Interval”, an utter triumph of a recording that contains so much loose energy – not to mention a poignant, pensive perversity – that it would have sat well on a Bunnymen record, or perhaps in the central reservation of The Cure’s Disintegration (1989).
(2003, Welsh Fflach Tradd)
Enlli (or Bardsey) is the small island off the most western point of the Llyn Peninsula which has had mystical and religious significance since the middle ages, inspiring numerous artistic statements in art, literature and music. The ‘triple harp’ – which is Llio’s instrument – originates in 16th Century Italy but has long been associated with Welsh traditional music. The music has emotion, gravitas, style, vulnerability and hidden strength. The lament and melancholy which the music appears to conjure are in no way self-pitying – in fact, the music is alive with hope and breaths of optimism. There is a dichotomy at the heart of the music: the happy and sad, the ancient and the modern, the melody and improvisation. The commitment to both melody and improvisation – the known and the unknown – runs throughout the album. It is impossible at times to know whether Llio is deconstructing a melody or purely improvising. Snippets of ‘Ffynnon Melangell’ run throughout the album, little sketches of music almost serving as echoes of the grand improvisations contained within. This is a world-class album recorded by a world-class musician. In a parallel universe Llio would be the Omara Portuondo of Wales, rightly celebrated in concert halls worldwide. Llio has harmonic sophistication comparable to Debussy or Bill Evans, she would not be out of place in the company of transcendental universal travellers such as Alice Coltrane or Rashid Ali, and her ‘authenticity’ is comparable to Blind Lemmon Jefferson or the Griots of Mali.
Join us next week for 80-71 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.
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