In the latest in our Greatest Welsh Albums series, Max Ashworth sings the praises of Patio by West Walian indy favourite Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
“They can hear you all the way down the bloody street!” yells someone’s mom at the close of ‘Barbed Wire’. Just one of the many delightfully recorded interruptions from long-suffering parents ripping into the band that are rotating garage rehearsal space whenever they wore out their stay, which was usually pretty quick.
I hate Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. And I hate Patio. Godfathers of Cool Cymru, teenagers at the time of recording – the lead singer Euros Childs was 14 and the band were amassed from school friends and siblings – championed by John Peel, admired by John Cale, a debut album, an average age of 15, and with my childish lurch to hate anything truly exceptional, what I really mean is I am jealous as hell.
I would have been the same age as the band when this album was released (I’m not going to tell you what music I was listening to at the time) and on guitar I could barely play C, Am, F, G, let alone swap over to do some drumming on one track and bass on another, keyboards on another. (They later even worked with superfan John Cale, also a multi-instrumentalist, on ‘O, Caroline II’, a 1994 track for the film Beautiful Mistake). Out of the five-piece band, only the lead singer, Euros Childs, can be slotted into any kind of category: lead vocal.
Most people remember the quixotic name, usually mispronounced, which for a young band might be construed as trying a bit too hard to be weird and edgy. To provide my rough and hopefully wildly incorrect translation: Dim-witted Embryonic Monkey. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci is either an intelligently attention-seeking name for a band, or highly pretentious and misanthropic, as you may expect from teenagers. I enjoy the distance of not knowing exactly, and I’ll leave it to you what you want it to mean. And even if you think it’s pretentious – actually, what is wrong exactly with pretentious? Muse, Arcade Fire, Roxy Music, King Crimson and all the 70s prog bands et al did or have done pretty well out of it, and without a clumsy name. But as Euros later recalled, “It all started as an in-joke, but as we got popular, it became too late to change it.”
Whereas the longevity of current bands is five years – if you’re feeling generous – GZM stayed together with various line-ups for fifteen years, releasing nine albums and two earlier self-released EPs, finally disbanding in 2006.
GZM pre-date Catatonia, The Super Furry Animals, Stereophonics, 60 Ft. Dolls, but not the Manics, who were maybe 50% never proper Cool Cymrus anyway. Because this album is far more exciting than the dull Cool Britannia stuff that floated ‘politically’ around a few years later, of which Cool Cymru rebelled, and rightly so.
The music might sound familiar to modern indie tastes, but GZM formed at roughly the same time as Blur, Oasis, Suede, and all that lot, and sound like the antithesis of beery Britpop.
Hugely confident, and with a devil-may-care approach that one may expect from a nascent band rightfully practising rather than doing their biology homework, Patio is in danger of overflowing with ideas and sounds. But I enjoy being inundated by music, rather than something innocuous in the background telling me everything is OK, when it is an understatement to say that it is actually not. It’s a cliché, sorry, but Patio needs to be listened to very loud, probably with headphones: it is almost an album designed to annoy parents and infuriate grumpy neighbours and abruptly and conveniently terminate your lease; Patio is ideal getting-the-party-started music, infectious, the kind of album you’d play while getting ready for a lively evening out.
GZM were a psychedelic band with other influences including punk, grunge, folk, frequent nods to The Stooges (‘Sally Webster’), The Fall, Grateful Dead, even some songs finding Lennon-McCartney-style harmonies. And ‘Barbed Wire’ starts as if they’re about to cover ‘Get Back’ but lurches playfully into something much darker in tone. Sometimes the fuzzy guitars and drumming is very Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum playing most instruments also, but are more on the psychedelic side.
Patio is a compilation album, a kind of ‘Best of’ their early recordings between 1991-93 and delightfully jumps about in terms of tones and textures, never giving you a foothold, never allowing you to pin them down. They must have had a lot of fun choosing the order of songs. Some people like to be taken on a ‘journey’, but Patio is more like playing Russian Roulette with Mentos hidden in mint imperials, spin-the-bottle, and a potentially minty bomb dropped into bottles of Diet Coke; you never know when it’s going to explode, and upon whom.
Recorded in various members’ garages, Patio is most definitely not a studio album, recorded presumably on an 8-track and with computers, occasionally live ‘Sally Webster’, and there are some hilarious moments (a bit like early Daniel Johnston tapes) where you can hear someone’s mother storm in and berate the band for playing too loudly in the garage and a father angrily shout: “You don’t need that volume in a room this size! I told you lot four hours ago. And I know you’re going to do it again. This is my last warning. Use your brain and think!”
A populist exportable vehicle for the Welsh language, GZM are not overly nationalistic or political, and reviews in Welsh publications refused to review the occasional songs in English, which would have made things tricky as most songs contain lyrics both in Welsh and English. Maybe this is controversial; GZM got a bit of stick on both sides for a perceived fence-sitting position, having their cake and eating it; or maybe not even eating it, just thinking tangentially about it. A lot is expected of home-grown talent in Wales.
Beyond the obvious choral skill, there is also a Nico quality to manic pixie dream girl, Euros Child’s unbroken lead vocals; ambivalent, touching, distant, youthful, and also delightfully unpredictable (‘Dean Ser’ is gorgeous), nicely juxtaposed with the aggression for the grungier tunes; a beautiful staccato track listing.
So, after several seconds of silence, a gentle guitar plays very quietly, then a babbling brook. I assumed I had the volume too low, so I turned it way up and just as the wonderful noise of ‘Peanut Dispenser’ blasted from my speaker and made everyone in the room jump. Nice little joke, if that was the intention. ‘Peanut Dispenser’ is a great declaration of intent with its background wall of fuzz and over-driven acoustic guitar. By the time we come to the third song ‘Dadad yn Siarad’ which sounds like The Raincoats on amphetamines with its urgent and petulant vocal, making good use of loud and then soft and then loud again, it all ends oddly with a bleating sheep. ‘Mr Groovy’ is barking mad, and highly enjoyable. Starting with two Happy Christmas wishes, a disco track then kicks in, various inaudible interruptions and 30 seconds later, and we’re back more in keeping with GZM. A country style pastiche enters with a vocal lamenting the suspicious loss of a ‘DJ Mr Groovy’. We all know him, yeah?
And then the distressing ‘Miriam o Farbel’, with its menacing tribal chants and beats, before lurching into something brighter, pastoral and, in typical GZM fashion, we return to what seems to have turned into some kind of incantation, and we’re back to the sunny woodland feel. Keep you on your toes, do GZM.
‘Gwallt Rheg! Pegi’ begins with quiet and heavily reverbed vocals, but guess what, this being Patio, the song then chicanes off in a different direction, but is still oddly muted until a minute into the track and the volume goes back to its usual level, sounding jarring, like someone, my bad, guys, only just remembered to turn the vocal up. ‘Sally Webster’ shows their ability to find catchy riffs and still channel something like The Stooges within the wall of incomprehensible lyrics, churning guitars and screeches of feedback. It’s one of the few songs on Patio that remain consistently with one sound or texture throughout and with, um, disarmingly, no disarming digressions.
‘Diamonds o Monte Carlo’ builds ominously but slips into something more radio-friendly, a cheeky organ playing ahead of the beat supplies a jaunty groove, but hold on, here’s a slow waltz for you now, and then we’re back to the garage band again. ‘Blessed Are the Meek’ is a live directionless jam, and there’s even a song about an Italian-born Scottish photographer of post-WW2 London, ‘Reverend Oscar Marzaroli’ just in case things weren’t random enough for you.
Two thirds of the songs are sung in Welsh, but the funny sleeve notes give witty, obscure and puerile explanations and beguiling clues to non-Welsh speakers. “Idea nicked from a kids’ book”, “40-50 year-old holidays in Monte Carlo: meets woman of dreams.”
GZM feel compelled to add quirky sound effects at the beginning and end of many songs and, while they are fun and throwaway and WTF!?, but maybe too wilfully sophomoric, they want us to know they’re having a laugh. Very much like The White Album, this is a disparate collection of beautifully juxtaposed songs but, unlike The White Album, on Patio we hear the early development of the GZM sound, and choosing the songs that best represent that direction.
You don’t have to have been born in the 70s to enjoy this album. It is still fresh today, exciting, frenetic as papers flying around the stairwell on the last day of school, voices competing against their own echoes in the hallways. But GZM are not an angry teenager band. There is real maturity here and, while it feels wonderfully chaotic, there are moments for plangent ballads, and a subtlety and poignancy rare for such young musicians.
Although when GZM left Ankst in Cardiff, the albums found a better balance. The work became more laid back. But for me, I like noise, energy, realism and unpredictability. Yes, this album is loud and risky and messy, and can sound like they’ve taped a practice session, but it’s the rawness and purity that provide a surfeit of authenticity bereft from 90% of most bands who compose albums by committee today. Like a ‘Best of…’ album, there are a lot of tracks (21), none of which outstay their welcome or become repetitious, and all coming in at a punchy three minutes, the only exception being ‘Sally Webster’, which comes in at just under 7, and three tracks containing alternate versions. If you’re a traditionalist like me and like to own the physical CD, good luck finding a reasonably-priced copy (the guy in HMV laughed in my face), and if you have the original vinyl, for heaven’s sake give yourself a pat on the back, although I guess you’ve probably done that already. How this minor masterpiece has been allowed to go out of print is another example of our kill-kill-faster-faster demand for our new-music-now-please culture of streaming and getting music for free online. So it saddens me to say, but hasten thee to Spotify or YouTube, or you’ve only got my word for it.