I’ve known Anne Lister for so long that I can’t remember when and where we first met. There was a certain festival and a certain band….no, that’s another story. Anne is best known for he song ‘Icarus’ but, unlike her tragic hero she has stayed mostly under the radar. Recent years have been spent in the groves of academe gaining a Ph.D from Cardiff University with a thesis on the story of an Arthurian knight that’s far too complicated to go into here. Add to that working on a novel and further developing her story-telling career. Astrolabe is themed around place and time and mixes some vintage songs with new compositions.
The opening title track is something of an overture, definitely a bit radio-friendly, but then the gloves come off. ‘Wolf Moon’ with shruti and chimes explains that there really are no reasons from out there for shit happening and ‘Small Ways To Beat The Devil’ points to the real culprits. Do I need to list the dramatis personae? I don’t think so, although Greta Thunberg has a starring role as the heroine. It’s terrific song.
It’s not all fire and brimstone, though. ‘Vindolanda’ is an historical love song inspired by a small golden ring now in a museum but at the same time Anne contemplates her own wedding ring – her husband Steve designed the album cover and sings backing vocals. And while I’m on the subject Anne has pulled in some friends to support her including her partner in Anonyma, Mary McLaughlin, Mike O’Connor and his musical partner Barbara Griggs, Matt Crum and Steafan Hannigan with Dylan Fowler among the roll-call of engineers.
Next, Anne melds the traditional ’10,000 Miles’ with her own song ‘Heroes’. Sung a cappella it is a perfect mix of place and time steeped in nostalgia; a feeling echoed in ‘Llanwenarth’ with its list of soothing herbs and meadow flowers. ‘Summerlands’ is a surprisingly up-tempo meditation on mortality while ‘Grandmother And The Wolf’ dispenses age-old wisdom – or does it? – and Grandma reappears in ‘Photograph’. I do like the way Anne leads us through the themes of the album and, at this point, without losing the thread she changes the mood with ‘Mametz’, a reference to a major incident of the Battle of the Somme.
Anne’s voice and guitar are kept well to the fore, as they should be, but when power is needed fiddle and accordion are on hand. There is so much to enjoy here and it really is good to have Anne back with her music.
When I first heard the Rheingans Sisters I hoped that they might bring something new to the folk music of Derbyshire where they grew up. Instead, they have fixed their attention on composition and songwriting and the result is their third album, Bright Field.
The sisters are much travelled. Anna now lives in France and Rowan is a go-to violin-player for many distinguished musicians as well as being one third of Lady Maisery and one-sixth of Coven. This album was recorded in Wales under the supervision of Dylan Fowler who also adds bass guitar and tabwrth when required – and if you’re wondering what a tabwrth is, so was I – it’s a small drum or tabor.
There is a wildness, an exoticism about Bright Field. It opens with Anna’s tune, ‘Glattugla’, which was inspired by a winter spent in Trondheim and has an unmistakeable Scandinavian vibe about it, as does ‘Swinghorn’ which was also written in Norway. Snow and ice features quite a bit. The first song, Rowan’s long ‘This Forest’, is nothing less than a history of the planet in the form of a dream and she envisages the end of our world under a blanket of snow. It’s a superb song and probably the highlight of the album.
Anna’s French influences are present in the shape of two bourées and a song, ‘Appel’, which is about wanting to go south because the north wind is freezing her – and that’s as far as my French takes me. Finally in this Francophile segment comes ‘Lo Segoner’, a traditional branle. The title track is a long instrumental written by Rowan terminating in a poem by R S Thomas read by Dafydd Davies-Hughes. I particularly like ‘Edge Of The Field’ which I’m guessing is the final plea of an old horse for a dignified ending. It’s remarkably moving.
There’s a lot to listen to on this album and much to enjoy and the sisters’ current tour would make for an excellent night out.
Musicians, composers and folk music scholars The Rheingans Sisters release their third album Bright Field on 23rd March 2018, on Rootbeat Records (RBRCD39). Since their award winning album Already Home (2015) the duo have cemented their reputation as an unmissable live act on the folk and world music stage, captivating audiences across the UK, Europe and Australia. As full-hearted and graceful performers, arrangers and on-stage improvisors, theirs is a rich artistic approach to the deconstruction and reimagining of traditional music via the adventurous use of fiddles, voices, banjo, bansitar, tambourin à cordes, poetry and percussion. Their poignant compositions have also gained them many new fans and a busy night at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where they won the prestigious Best Original Track award for their song ‘Mackerel’ alongside a nomination in the Horizon category for Best New Act.
While Anna Rheingans lives and works as a musician and violin teacher in Toulouse, Rowan Rheingans is one of the most in demand musicians on the UK folk scene today. She has been kept busy with no less than four other notable releases over the past two years; her trio Lady Maisery’s critically acclaimed third album Cycle as well as Nancy Kerr’s astonishing Instar, Welsh songwriter Gwyneth Glyn’s debut album Tro and the remarkable Songs Of Separation project, which won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Album in 2017.
A spacious, adventurous and quietly revealing album, Bright Field is The Rheingans Sisters first collection of newly composed music. If Already Home told listeners where the fiddle-singing duo were coming from, both in their pan-European musical scholarship (Anna and Rowan have studied in France, Sweden, Norway and Ireland) and in their vivacious nurturing of connections between the folk music of different geographical origins, then Bright Field tells us where they are going and explores more deeply than ever the grounded yet experimental artistic approach with which they travel. It is also a more reflective album, drawing on their own personal experiences of the world and finding expression for this via their unique take on musical knowledge passed down through generations.
Although Bright Field is a powerfully personal album, Rowan and Anna’s approach to telling their own stories remains one of openness; just as their performances leave room for spontaneity, their compositions leave room for new interpretations. It was after the success of their award-winning song ‘Mackerel’, which was based on a specific true event and yet evidently resonated with so many, that the sisters’ realised the artistic power of harnessing this musical space:
The sisters’ divergent but symmetrical musical journeying, in Southern France and Scandinavia in particular, remain a central thread of inspiration for Bright Field. For example, Rowan’s dark poem-song ‘This Forest’ – an existential lament on the idea of humanity’s historical progress – is intentionally constructed along the lines of a traditional French Rondeau, giving the song a fittingly relentless cyclical rhythm which carries on in the mind long after hearing it. Likewise, ‘Green Unstopping’ teases listeners with a dreamlike series of half-seen images of environmental catastrophe and potential for redemption. It toys with the comforting form of a traditional dance melody, but refuses to let listeners settle via deftly changing time signatures and a fluidity of genre eventually leading to a pop sensibility almost reminiscent of Swedish pop giants (and fellow folk fans) ABBA.
Anna’s recent travels also permeate her compositions. Bright Field’s sparse opening track ‘Glattugla ‘was written last year while Anna was studying in Norway. A contemporary, almost minimalist piece inspired by a dark winter spent in the far north, it is imbued with the stylistic elements of Scandinavian fiddle playing while half retaining the shapes of old dance music from Anna’s adopted home in South West France. Similarly, her poetic song ‘Appel’ (the long-awaited solo of Anna’s soft and almost bluesy vocals, accompanied sparingly by Rowan on an earthy low strung baritone banjo) captures a timeless yearning for other landscapes.
fRoots magazine once commented that The Rheingans Sisters “inject genuine freshness into well-worn themes and ideas” and this remains a central endeavour on Bright Field. Unable to resist including one traditional melody, Anna and Rowan efficiently deconstruct and rebuild in their signature style ‘Lo Segoner’, a Branle from the Béarn region of France. It soars under the wings of Anna and Rowan’s spirited playing, punctuated by the low drones of Anna’s Ttun-ttun, a Pyrenean string drum, and high pitched flabuta (a three holed flute played simultaneously). This old melody, joyfully stretched and pulled, becomes something quite different when the sisters’ vocal chorus climaxes over raw, muscular fiddles and an ancient, gut-strung bassline. ‘Xaviers/The Honeybee’, both newly written bourrées, retain the very best of these infectious, energetic old dance forms while Rowan and Anna use them to explore new rhythmic and harmonic places. Once again, The Rheingans Sisters’ music is anchored in tradition but never, ever bound.
Produced by the sisters themselves, Bright Field was recorded and mixed in Abergavenny by Dylan Fowler, also responsible for their critically acclaimed 2015 album Already Home as well as other recent records from the more innovative end of the British folk scene, such as Lady Maisery’s Cycle, Gwyneth Glyn’s Tro and Hannah James’ Jigdoll, as well as world music star Tcha Limberger and folk-rock legend Robin Williamson. As can be expected, Rowan and Anna play a plethora of instruments on Bright Field, many of them handmade by their luthier father Helmut Rheingans. Musically it centres around the sisters’ expansive and imaginative use of their fiddles, banjos and voices, but they also invite in other sounds such as Dylan Fowler’s subtle percussion and the peaceful voice of Welsh storyteller Dafydd Davies-Hughes.
Bright Field goes beyond bonds to specific traditions while remaining unquestionably steeped in the The Rheingans Sisters’ life-long love and study of traditional music. Fans of Rowan and Anna’s previous albums will welcome this richly detailed, poetic and timely record dedicated to the duo’s considerable skills as composers of arresting instrumentals and writers of timeless songs. This is the kind of record many folk fans will have been hoping The Rheingans Sisters would soon create. New listeners can look forward to a wholly different kind of introduction to these two musicians at the height of their powers.
The second album from Anglo-Welsh band The Foxglove Trio sees them getting a little more Welsh, possibly down to recording in Abergavenny with Dylan Fowler in the producer’s chair. Five of the songs on Distant Havens are in Welsh, thanks to the bilingual talents of Ffion Mair, but don’t let that put you off, they top and tail the record with verses from The Foo Fighters, although I’m not sure that Dave Grohl would immediately recognise them.
The Foxglove Trio is a slightly curious line-up. Both Cathy Mason and Patrick Dean play cello, sometimes duetting , but more often Patrick plays melodeon. Cathy also plays guitar while Ffion adds bodhran and whistle to her lead vocal duties. Their sound can be sweet and delicate as on ‘These Are My Mountains’ – Patrick has a very light touch on the melodeon – or big and robust as on ‘Looking Elsewhere’ and ‘The Sheffield Apprentice’.
The trio are strong environmentalists and the most obvious example of their concerns is Jean Ritchie’s ‘Now Is The Cool Of The Day’, a song that is rapidly gaining popularity. Rather more clever is Ffion’s ‘The January Girl’, a reworking of the Dave Goulder song highlighting the problems of climate change. Ffion’s songwriting excels again in ‘Branwen’, inspired by a story from the Mabinogion. You can tell that it’s a folk song because a lot of people are dead at the end and you could pass it off as traditional if you were so minded.
Politics rears its head in the shape of William Morris’ ‘Dusk The Day’ but I do wish that The Foxglove Trio had used the original title, A Death Song of Alfred Linnell, a poem for the funeral of an innocent bystander killed by the police in 1886. Seriously, if you’re going to make a political statement, have the courage to stand by it: context means a lot here.
That niggle aside, this is a splendid album, and I wish the trio every success with it.
October sees the return of acclaimed Cardiff singer-songwriter and folk musician Gareth Bonello, also known as The Gentle Good. A collaborator of a great many beloved artists, including Cate Le Bon, Richard James (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) and Welsh Music Prize winner Georgia Ruth, Bonello’s fourth album Ruins/Adfeilion is one that’s title alone serves best to reflect the disparate themes within. Although not represented by a single concept, the songs have common themes of history, identity and social commentary. The title refers to a realisation that there is no true freedom to make the world as we would choose, but instead have to live amongst the ruins of previous generations. Some of these ruins are beautiful links to our past, providing a sense of place and cultural identity for instance, whilst others are dangerous obstacles that hinder our progress.
As the follow-up to 2013’s Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard) – an ambitious intercontinental project during which Bonello travelled to Chengdu, China, to create a project combining both Welsh and Chinese traditions – Ruins/Adfeilion looks much closer to home, but with no lesser global outlook. ‘Gwen Lliw’r Lili’ (Gwen colour of the Lilly) is a fitting album opener – being a traditional Welsh folk song from the Maria Jane Williams Collection, Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg (1844) – and an outward statement on the influence that the continuing influence of Welsh folk music on his writing. The guitar instrumental ‘Un i Sain Ffagan’ (One for Saint Fagans), for instance, is Bonello’s own ode to his former place of employment, Saint Fagans Natural History Museum, and the spot where he himself first discovered traditional Welsh music.
Many of the songs featured here pay tribute to the past whilst others address, in very direct terms, contemporary issues.
’Rivers of Gold’ is a plaintive and simple protest song tackling the subject of trickledown economics, written in response to rising wealth inequality and the fact that it is the poor that have had to bear the brunt of austerity. Here Bonello channels Guthrie, Dylan – complete with harmonica solo – and there’s a touch of Stuart Murdoch in the lilting refrain “Rivers of gold / What a sight to behold / They’re the rivers that never will run.” In turn, ‘Bound For Lampedusa’ tells the story of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to the Libyan coast, noted for its acceptance of thousands of African refugees, fleeing conflict and poverty. The song was penned in despair at the lack of an appropriate response from both the UK and the EU to the refugee crisis, with the scale of some of the journeys taken perhaps reflected by the song’s near 7-minute length, as Bonello explains; “Thousands have lost their lives and many more continue to risk everything to make the crossing in search of a better life in Europe. The song is told from the perspective of a group of refugees drifting in the Mediterranean, wondering what their fate will be. Seb Goldfinch wrote the string and brass accompaniment so beautifully performed by the Mavron Quartet, and Jack and Callum provided the rhythm section. Profit from this track will be donated to Oasis Cardiff, a centre that provides much needed social services to refugees and asylum seekers in the city.”
Elsewhere, ‘Suffer The Small Birds’ (a deliberate misquote from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus) makes the political point of not ignoring the little voice. “The eagle suffers the little birds to sing and is not careful what they mean thereby, knowing that with the shadow of his wings, he can at pleasure stint their melody.” Winston Churchill is said to have used the quote after World War II, his attitude being that they needn’t listen to the concerns of the smaller nations, ultimately sowing the seeds for future conflict in the region.
Tradition is then turned on its head for ‘Pen draw’r Byd’ (The Far Side of The World), a song Bonello describes as his “feminist zombie folk song”, saying; “This is a song about a young girl awaiting the return of her sailor boy. These tragic females commonly appear in Welsh folk song and their role is almost always to wander some bleak shoreline and helplessly yearn for the return of their lost love, who usually never comes back. I wanted to turn the tradition around and so in this song the young lady curses the sea and wishes it be left to the lonesome cries of the seagulls. In the last verse she tells herself that even if her young love should return from the dead complete with a crown of sand and seaweed in his hair she would still beg the moon to drag the sea and everything in it to the far side of the world.”
Album closer ‘Merch y Morfa’ (Estuary Girl) makes up the album’s sombre lament for his late grandmother, featuring a field recording of a Curlew’s fittingly mournful cry. Ruins/Adfeilion is The Gentle Good’s message to world in 2016; a biting commentary, a dance with the past, a scorning of the present, and a new perspective on the traditional.
Fiona Bassett (French Horn), Gareth Bonello (Lead Vocal, Guitars, Piano, Harmonium, Harmonica), Callum Duggan (Double Bass), Jack Egglestone (Drums & Percussion), Dylan Fowler (Mandocello & Lap Steel), Ceri Jones (Trombone), Georgia Ruth Williams (Harp & vocals), Tomos Williams (Trumpet)
After a warm response and across-the-board critical acclaim for her collaboration with Chatterbox, Tuulikki Bartosik strikes out on her own with her solo debut Storied Sounds. A showcasing artist at Tallinn Music Week, Bartosik enlists the help of Timo Alakotila (piano), Villu Talsi (mandolin) and Dylan Fowler (guitar).
“We transfer our traditions to each other, take our world with us wherever we go, and we take something with us from every place we visit, every person we meet.” – Tuulikki
Storied Sounds is a beautifully-composed love letter to the Estonian landscapes of Tuulikki’s childhood, to more recent adventures, and to family and friends. There is a glimmering vividness in these tracks. Pulsating cities, screeching seagulls, fishes flapping in nets, the smell of the forest in autumn and spring… all of these things, and more, are depicted powerfully in their reflective tunescapes. Ambient field recordings made in Estonia infuse several pieces, enhancing their already strong sense of place. Storied Sounds evokes an elemental point where nature, memory and music converge.