The work of an immensely talented musician whose experience includes poetry, theatre, Welsh and world music, Tro is a consistent album – something increasingly rare in a modern world of digital downloads and one-off hits. Perhaps it’s still easier to attain this consistency in folk genres. But this in itself does not account for the unique spirit that pervades Tro. In this sense of spirit, Gwyneth Glyn’s album resembles that of another contemporary artist (albeit in a somewhat different genre) – David Gray, on his magisterial White Ladder. Both are the kinds of albums that beg to be played over and over, and occupy their own musical space.
Released on the new bendigedig label (an independent partnership between Theatr Mwldan and ARC Music Productions), Tro contains no less than ten Welsh language tracks. Indeed, it can be argued that Glyn’s ethereal voice is more suited to Welsh than English (though her vocals are excellent in both). Tro’s arrangements do not require great vocal range, so we are left enticed by the possibilities of what else she is capable. But it is clear that Glyn is a confident singer, and to a large degree it is her voice that gives Tro its spirit of controlled restraint.
A native of North Wales, Glyn has enjoyed wide success as a musician, playwright and poet, and she continues to push the boundaries of Welsh traditional music, working on the past (and on this album) with musicians representing traditional music and instrumentation from Africa, America and Asia. This sort of experiment stands out, quite literally, from the very first notes of the opening track, “Tanau (Fires)”, which buzzes with the bansitar of Rowan Rheingans. While some purists might blanche at the introduction of non-traditional instruments, the use of this and others like the kora is not merely a gimmick: rather, they contribute to creating Tro’s basic soundscape of a multi-textured drone over which the occasional plucked banjo may sparkle, out of which a violin may arise sternly when called upon.
While much of Tro could be considered brooding, as with “Cwlwm (Knot)” and meditative, as with “Ffair (Fair)”, Glyn covers wider territory. Indeed, the album’s first English-language track (“Dig Me a Hole”) is really a power-rock anthem in disguise, in ¾ for good measure. It also features some of the album’s best lyrics (‘and the empire they built on the tears of a child/ won’t last too long when the waters run wild/ and a great wind will set all their secrets alight/ for lies like moths are drawn to the light’).
Along with its toughness and sometimes ominous restraint, Tro also offers moments of pure innocence, and a sentimental feeling for the Welsh landscape and the people and places that are meaningful and inspiring to the artist. “Caerdyni”, named for a beloved local hill, is a gem of a song which features some of Glyn’s gentlest vocals, set over a humble strummed banjo that could just as well be the sounding of goat-bells on the evening’s return homeward. Similarly the eleventh track, “Os na weal’i di (If I Don’t See You)” is an immensely soothing and precisely performed piece of melancholic joy, with hints of musical influence from American folk music.
Glyn exhibits one of her other passions, poetry, on the album’s final song, “Trafaeliais / Kidé-magni”, with its spoken-word lyrics over jazzy cymbals and sparkling runs on the kora. It’s an unexpected way to end the album, and gives a hint of the imagination of an artist who likely has many more surprises in store for us in albums to come.
It would be remiss to leave off without a mention of the record’s sublime production and indeed the great skill of Glyn’s fellow musicians who are responsible for the heavy lifting on a whole bevy of different instruments. Some of these played by album producer Dylan Fowler include dobro, kantele, tabwrdd, mbira, mandocello, guitar and bass. Additional musicians who put it in solid performances on Tro include Patrick Rimes (violin), Gillian Stevens (viol and crwth), Mark O’Connor (percussion), Rowan Rheingans (banjo) and Seckou Keita (kora).
At heart, it’s the above-mentioned quality of consistency in spirit and mood that best characterises Tro’s singular identity, and that quality derives partly from the production. Fowler weaves the instrumentation levels together seamlessly and nothing is allowed to dominate – not even the vocals – and the listener feels almost in the room with the performers. In short, there is no added gloss, no make-up- just a simple, earnest production that maintains the signature mood that makes Tro so enjoyable to keep on play all afternoon long.