Gary Raymond reviews the latest album from composer, producer and bassist Huw Marc Bennett, Days Like Now.
If the offer of yet another album conceived and recorded during the thumb-twiddling days of lockdown sends shivers down your spine, then allow Huw Marc Bennett’s latest effort, Days Like Now, to remind you that for some artists being given the opportunity to hermitize with nothing but an Aladdin’s cave of kit and a vast vista of introspective musings is exactly what they (and we) needed. My Lockdown Album from the likes of Paloma Faith or Elton John, is one thing, a marketing tag from people terrified of being left alone for one minute, but give a composer not in thrall to the tides of record-company trends, one who is also outside that sheened-bubble of the mainstream music business, and we may be getting to something deeply seated. Time – and space – can reveal much.
And so, Days Like Now is Bennett’s best record yet. He fills those sonic spaces with thoughtful and carefully constructed instrumental patterns, with vocals (his own aided by the beguiling sounds of Cleo Savva and Angela Christofilou) that act as instrumentations in their own right rather than focal points of the sound. Days Like Now moves between musical forms, but each of them – from dub to Cuban – are held in Bennett’s domineering embrace. He’s the Charlie Mingus in the room, the bass player who governs as generalissimo from the back. Bennett, however, for the most part, is the rest of the band too. Matt Davies and Yusuf Ahmed do some great drum work, (particularly Davies’ patterns on “Red Valley”, the album’s soaring closer), but the rest is all Bennett.
Days Like Now is, ostensibly, a guitar album. It is a record built around the versatility and charisma of that instrument, and even when synths, organs, and vocals step in, it is with the permission of a guitar sequence that brings order and drive. Bennett has spoken of the concept for the album being the reflections on his place of origin as a Welshman in London, and the folk intermingles with the urban. Tracks like “Y Cariad Cyntaf” and “Ffarwel i Langyfelach”, which form a neat duo in the centre of the album, are delivered with a grave panache somewhere between King Crimson and Jethro Tull. But the freshness of the mixtures of traditions and sounds is held together by the guitar work. “Pinc Sunset” is a cool summer sleeper hit, ready to be added to a thousand porch party playlists, Arthur Lee-style electric guitar bouncing cannily off the nylon strings of the main riff. “Y Gwydd” keeps that nylon backbone, but the drive is entirely redolent of the intrepid synth explorers of the 70s Krautrock scene (it brings to mind that fantastic Harmonia album from 1974) with an added splash of some jazz from the likes of Esbjorn Svensson, or some big sounds like you get from Tycho (at least, before he tragically signed “Awake” over to be used as hold music for Barclays Bank). It is an energising journey.
If the album has faults, it is not quite as sharp in the edit as it sometimes could be. It’s refreshing to hear an album recorded by one musician (sorry, drummers) that gives the impression of players playing off one another, but sometimes the effect slips and it feels like someone overdubbing. But I wouldn’t swap that for a more polished sound, anyway. The looseness works in Bennett’s favour, even when it doesn’t quite convince of the cohesiveness of the production techniques.
When the final track builds to its full raggedness, it brings to mind the miraculously craggy Cuban guitar of Mark Ribot on Tom Waits’ mid-period classic “Hoist that Rag” from Real Gone (2004). Ribot is a virtuoso, one of those musicians labelled with the clunky tribute of being a “guitarist’s guitarist”, adored by the likes of Waits and Elvis Costello. Bennett doesn’t suffer by comparison.
And a word on Bennett as a composer. The vision for the music is simple, allowing the space for the musicianship and the humanity behind it to amount to something. It is at times a shimmeringly emotive album, a work of beauty, reflective and musing, but most of all, it has the ring of honesty to it.
Days Like Now by Huw Marc Bennett is available now from Bandcamp.