by Phil Scarisbrick
There is a common misconception outside of Wales that Welsh is a ‘dead’ language, used only to add interest to road signs and to give locals the ability to talk about strangers in the pub without them understanding what is being said. In reality though, it is widely spoken across the principality, and forms a key part of a wider culture that is steeped in history. Although some of the more famous acts to hail from Wales have steered clear of using their mother tongue, Gruff Rhys – both in his solo work and with Super Furry Animals – has utilised it to create some scintillating records. After last year’s superb Babelsberg album, he has now returned with his first solo album solely in Welsh since his 2005 debut, Yr Atal Genedlaeth.
Despite returning to Cymraeg, he has enlisted South African producer, Muzi, to helm the desk. The music created is less expansive than its predecessor, but no less engaging. This is quite the feat for something that lyrically won’t be understood by a majority of its listeners. Not that Rhys has ever settled for the conventional, be it lyrically or sonically, and Pang! is no different. The use of electronic and folk-rock, fused with African rhythms creates a soundtrack that recalls the early work of Vampire Weekend. Ara Deg (Ddaw’r Awen) for example builds around electronically-created African beats with one of Rhys’ signature sunshine melodies.
His voice sounds a little weary at times, and when you translate some of the lyrics to English (for us non-Welsh speakers) you can see that this is evocative of the subjects he is tackling. Eli Haul is a sparse acoustic number that sees Rhys concerned about the impact the sun has on him, while Bae Bae Bae talks about ‘radioactive colours’ and ‘guns falling into steel streams’. Although I only have Google Translate’s word for it, it seems obvious that Rhys is bearing a weight with the songs he has written.
As usual though, his melodies have the ability to cloak even the most serious and downbeat subjects in a gloss of beauty. The title track steams along with snare-heavy beats, and brass stabs punctuating the affecting vocals, while Ôl Bys/Nodau Clust utilises minimal backing with heavily-layered vocals for one of the album’s highlights.
Much will be made about the fact that the album is in Welsh, mainly by those who don’t speak it. The effect it has on the listener though is akin to the supposed effect that going blind has on the other senses. Without being distracted trying to analyse what is being said, you dial into the melodies and rhythm more acutely. The cadence of the vocal becomes more pronounced because it is the only tangible element. In the end, your experience is one that is not diminished, but merely altered and enjoyed in a different way. It also goes to show that great music isn’t just there to be understood, but to be enjoyed.
Secret Meeting score: 79