Gary Raymond reviews Afal by Adam Walton the latest album of songs and ambient music from the BBC Radio Wales DJ.
I’ve never been a great believer in the received wisdom that anybody who has made a name for themselves in one profession should stay in their lane, save confusing the consumer public as to their role in the rigid toiling of the gatekeeper class. Creative enterprise has never been more democratic, and so it has never been easier for a person to kick back after clocking out of their day job to get stuck into something that has been more of a niggle to the right side of the brain. (I make a special exemption to my live-and-let-live attitude for the bulging growth of “celebrity novels”, which seems to me to be anti-literature). But I have no problem with the musician who paints portraits, the critic who writes plays, or the DJ who makes an album. And so, we have Adam Walton, long time Wales’s answer to John Peel, releasing a new longplayer of songs sprinkled with ambient sound “ideas”, exactly the sort of record noodled out of the quiet moments when his BBC Radio Wales show is done and dusted and a beer is cracked open and everyone else has gone home.
Perhaps in a different age I would have been a little more cynical about this. But in this era of the dark, it’s important to note that Walton may have recorded this album as a downtime investment in a revivifying process, but he has released it because it’s worth releasing. Afal is, really, a very good record indeed. Walton is a vocalist of relaxed warmth, somewhere between Elliot Smith and Steve Mason, and his songwriting is as equally sophisticated as those two. In this aforementioned democratic age, I hear album after album after album pained over lovingly by good, dedicated artists who one cannot help but conclude are incapable of excavating anything surprising from the pentatonic scale. Walton is not one of them. Afal strides – if “stride” is not too empathic a word for such a quiet, contemplative listening experience – along the line that separates freshness from familiarity. Aside from Smith and Mason, you can hear here some of the longing intonations of pre-Dark Side… Floyd, Syd Barrett solo stuff, and plenty of 90s west coast acoustic grunge, all played out in a vibe that nods slowly to the 60s psychedelic trend that souped up the English folk tradition.
Walton is a noodler, and he has plenty of apps and gadgets, and it’s to his credit that the album is not overcooked. He has judged the self-indulgent elements extremely well. Songs like “Mary Sees UFOs” and “Cloudburst II” might have gone off the rails without one eye on restraint. Walton’s musical instincts are superb. He has a knack for an intimate sound which is quite new. On his previous solo outing, 2019’s Love, Death and Inbetween, his voice has the presence of a busker and the songwriting plods along inoffensively enough. If you’d said to me the maker of that album could come up with something as interesting and focussed as Afal, I would have struggled to believe you. Afal is an album that gets under the skin, that lingers and whispers at you in the darkest corners of your day.
The excellent songwriting and performances are augmented by Walton’s ditty sound experiments that overall give a winning curiousness to the journey of the album. In the mix, these short soundscapes do not quite gel with the main event (the songs), and might have been better deployed with the songs drifting in and out of them rather than as tracks in and of themselves, but they do individually, musically, hold up. There are moments of Vangelis in here (the short opener made me wonder if track 2 wasn’t going to consist of me being subjected to Voight-Kampff test). But they bring much needed texture and lift Afal from a collection of good songs to a cohesive aesthetic album experience.
As a recording artist, this is certainly the high point of Walton’s career so far, and if the DJing and broadcasting career doesn’t work out, at least now he has something to fall back on.
Afal by Adam Walton is available now on streaming platforms.