Guest post by Pastaman Vibration (ye-ah!) - positive?
The Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert sees actress Keeley Hawes, star of time travelling crime series Ashes to Ashes in the audience at one of his gigs and quips “you didn’t have to get shot to go back to the 80s, love, come back with me to Cardiff tonight”. It’s a funny - if in this 24/7 era - slightly outmoded stereotypical view of the Celtic backwater.
In the 1970s though, Gilbert’s observation would, quite painfully, have been bang on the money, and nowhere more so than with reference to the Welsh language rock and pop scene. Back in 1975 there was only one band with any real claim to rock credentials (Edward H Dafis). Otherwise it was the earnest if occasionally rousing protest songs of Dafydd Iwan, the rasping Dylanisms of Meic Stephens and an abundance of twee folk pops sung by girls in Laura Ashley prints with pretty voices to the strum of acoustic guitars.
In this none too promising environment the first incarnation of Brân (the roof over the “a” extends the vowel sound to something similar to barn), or in Welsh “Crow”, released the first and most intriguing of their three albums, each recorded with a different line-up (John Gwyn guitarist/bassist/vocalist being the only constant). Ail Ddechrau (“Restart” or “Resume”) is at times an awkward cut and shunt (I hope I type that one right) of progressive and folk influences which just about wins the day courtesy of a clutch decently written songs and the wonderful, near-operatic voice of the divine Nest Howells. Those of you who get off on Lavinia Blackwall’s singing with Trembling Bells and Cathy LeSurf-era Albion Band are in for a treat. The result is not too dissimilar to the likes of Mellow Candle and Fuchsia. Bearing in mind that these bands were around several years previous to Ail Ddechrau, and were even then almost forgotten and you’ll see what I mean about the time warp.
Skip the opening number Y Ddor Ddig, it’s awful. Go instead to F’annwyl un (“My Dear One”), Y Gwylwyr (“The Watchers” – a definite highlight) and Wrth Y Ffynnon (“By The Well”) which set the template for the rest of the album – fairly simple rhythms, competent bass work, neat guitar breaks and Nest’s stonkingly striking pipes.
Following this engaging triptych, though, what we are left with is very much of a mixed bag. Myfyrdod (“Meditation”) is clunky three chord rock vying for supremacy with Ms Howell’s pure, expressive voice, and comes across a bit like a proto Heath Robinson Evanescence. The results don’t quite hit the mark and can in aviation terms (geddit? Flying? Crow/Brân? Never mind) be classed a “near miss”, while Mor Braf ("So Fine”) and Blodyn (“Flower”) featuring Gwyn on vocals, are simply embarrassing. In contrast the so-so ballad Caledfwlch (“Hard Gap”) and the superior Y Crewr (“The Creator”) each provide something of an antidote to more ham-fisted proceedings. Matters are brought to a close by the melodic instrumental number Breuddwyd (“Dream”) showcasing Howells’ classically trained piano skills. A bit too Richard Clayderman for my tastes it must be said.
That, as they say, is that, except to mention the haunted house cover which is very “proggy” and definitely of its time, but oddly appealing nonetheless.
After this Howells and Gwyn recruited a new guitarist, Dafydd Pierce on the occasionally inspired and more commercially slanted Hedfan (“Flying”) and which introduced a light funk into what is actually a more effective marriage of rock and folk. Then Howells and Pierce left and Gwyn steered the band into dry dock with the rocking but less interesting Gwrach Y Nos. By way of a footnote, Nest Howells’ subsequent claim to fame is that she is the mother of Welsh folk music uberbabe Elin Fflur, for which we should all be grateful.
Oddi wrth PV-Y!