When Gwenno Saunders sings ‘Come and dance in the sunset to songs which are trivial and alarming’ (in Welsh – as she does throughout Y Dydd Olaf; except on one track, sung in Cornish), then it is hard not to both do her bidding and to admire this succinct summation of her own work. Musically the song is not exactly a dance track – more a spooked take on Neon Neon’s ‘Dr Zhivago’ – it is, however, undeniably groovy in a distant kind of way. It is, indeed, just the sort of stunned-sounding-music that you imagine you might well be dancing to should you live in the end-of-days scenario that Y Dydd Olaf is concerned with.
Opening track, ‘Chwyldro’, meanwhile, fuses melancholic Motown rhythms and 1960’s space age Moog-scapes in a manner that recalls the similarly sci-fi/Jo Meek preoccupied Broadcast. There is more of a pop sensibility to Gwenno than there ever was to that band, however (hardly surprising given her tenure with The Pipettes), and by the time the chorus (English translation: ‘Don’t forget, don’t forget your heart is in the revolution’) comes around it is easy to see why Heavenly snapped the record up after its initial release on Peski last year. On much of this work there is that perfect mixture of experimentation with pop sensibility; of folk melancholia with dance euphoria; that characterised seminal early Heavenly releases such as Saint Etienne’s ‘Avenue’.
Which is not to say that this record is in anyway retro or a slave to its influences. It’s more that its beguiling oddness and originality leaves you searching for keys to its genesis. It is one of those records, like say Bjork’s Debut, Tricky’s Maxinquaye or Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, which arrives fully formed, ushering the listener into a completely realised sonic world that quite simply didn’t exist before.
Viewed in this context, Gwenno’s involvement with The Pipettes feels less incongruous and more like a necessary apprenticeship, just as Bjork served with The Sugarcubes, Tricky with Massive Attack and the Rev throughout their lysergic-driven early years. For all that, the gulf between those Pipettes records and Y Dydd Olad is so vast that there is no doubt that its knock out brilliance comes as something of a surprise. Gwenno describes her involvement with that band as ‘playing a role that had already been written’, while she has spoken of how she has relished focusing on soundscapes rather than vocal melodies with this new material. Either way there is unquestionably a very definite sense of creative freedom and creative control at work here. Y Dydd Olad feels unmistakably like the work of an artist set free from constraining shackles.
Like two other recent Welsh records, Praxis Makes Perfect (the record which the aforementioned ‘Dr Zhivago’ calls home), and American Interior, Y Dydd Olaf is an indie concept record (I insert the word ‘indie’ to disassociate it from more traditional prog rock notions). Taking its title and subject from the 1950’s Welsh language sci-fi novel written by Owain Owain, Gwenno uses that book’s themes of working class oppression and technological enslavement to mirror the plight of contemporary society, as well as the plight of the Welsh language. (The novel is in the form of a diary written in Welsh, a language the overlords – who wish to turn the working class into actual robots – can’t understand). As with Praxis and American Interior, the concept of the record seems to give it added focus and cohesion (unlike music traditionally associated with idea of the prog rock concept LP). The pieces ebb and flow effortlessly, more in the style of a suite than a collection of pop songs.
Indeed in the year of Mwng’s reissue, it is difficult not to think of Gruff Rhys in the context of this record. As with any important new Welsh music being made at the moment, it is almost impossible to not notice his influence hovering in the background; whether it be in the lyrical mixture of politics, surrealism and whimsy; or in the malfunctioning-machine-vibe of the record’s complex, understated electronica. But perhaps more than this, there is also little doubt that Y Dydd Olaf looks set to be the first Welsh language crossover album since Super Furry Animal’s Mwng was lauded in the House of Commons in 2000. If that came to seem more like a once-in-a-generation event rather than an actual crossover, then it is undoubtedly inspiring to see the seeds that Mwng sowed finally flourish in Y Dydd Olaf, a record so arresting that nobody will care very much what language it is in. Of course a lot of people will care, as there is no doubt that recording the album entirely in Welsh (and briefly, Cornish) is an important political act. But at root what really matters is that Gwenno has made as unique and as startling a record as any that you will hear this year.
Gwenno plays the Far Out stage, Green Man Festival, Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons. 445pm, Today.
Gwenno will be in conversation with Gruff and Guto from Super Furry Animals on the Saturday of Greenman at Talking Shop.