Arenig is the third solo album from multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Gwilym Bowen Rhys, 2019 Welsh Folk Awards Best Solo Artist winner and BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2019 nominee. From his youthful days in cheeky alt-rock band Y Bandana, via three-part folk harmonies with his sisters in Plu and his grandad’s collection of traditional Welsh music, Rhys has nurtured his own distinctive style.
He’s a very forward-looking traditionalist, drawing on ancient and modern Welsh language sources married with sympathetic, progressive arrangements of his own contemporary music or traditional tunes. It’s a collaborative affair, with the album’s hugely talented musicians developing arrangments in the studio with him. They sizzle right from the start as opener, the saucy, traditional, ’Yr Hosan Las (The Blue Stockings)’ gets a complimentary lively, choppy, even jazz-infused backing. Even the salute to homely little aphorisms, ‘Da Gennyf Air O Ganu (I Enjoy A Little Singing)’ is set off with some nimble, thoroughly modern harp and a driving, percussive chug.
Rhys demonstrates his considerable credentials as a traditional composer, too: his tune ‘Jac Yr Oil’ (a tribute to his great-grandfather) perfectly comfortable beside its more established set mates. A little later, his writhing, insistent ‘Jeri Bach Gogerddan’ celebrates Welsh Romani influences on traditional Welsh music.
Gypsies’ curses may be called to mind by the fairly terrifying incantation towards the end of the bluesy ‘Byta Da Bres (Eat Your Money)’. The fire and passion in Rhys’s delivery of this song require no specific language skills.
Like an Alan Garner novel, natural and elemental forces are personified and influential in the daily lives of men. The seasons lead to the amorous tryst of guitar ballad, ‘Clychau’r Gog (Bluebells)’, while a lunar pull drives the melancholic ‘Lloer Dirion Llw’r Dydd (Gentle Moon, The Colour Of Day)’. Rhys’s gritty voice, easily conveying power or softness is texturised here to create a digeridoo-like resonance.
The gorgeous title track, ‘Arenig’, recited by its author (and Rhys’s great-uncle), poet Euros Bowen, describes the wonder of seeing the Snowdonian mountain suddenly ablaze with colour. From out of a low drone, the twisting fiddle motif is gradually echoed by a clear, bright harp before the compelling vocal begins. No matter the language, its rhythm and poetry transcend mere meaning. English translations are available on Gwilym Bowen Rhys’s website, which is useful – if only to demonstrate how much better the Welsh sounds.
Arenig is an intriguing and highly accomplished album: that rare intuitive meeting of tradition and contemporary that creates something genuinely exciting and original. And how particularly splendid that we can now celebrate and enjoy so much excellent music in the native languages of these small islands.
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Artist website: www.gwilymbowenrhys.com
‘Clychau’r Gog’ – live: