Noel Gardner rounds up all that’s new and noteworthy in the Welsh music scene with Transatlantic Sugar from Alice Low, Bethan Lloyd’s Metamorphosis, Death Knell’s Steel String Thing’s Set West, Raising Hell, Dicky Continental’s Un, and Jon Airdrie and Other Enablers’ latest release. From country twang to electronica, folk to punk, April 2023 is an eclectic and fruitful month indeed for new Welsh music.
The most inspired songwriter to have appeared on the Welsh music scene (by means of moving here, in this case) since at least pre-plague times, Alice Low consolidates close on two years of single releases and profile-building with Transatlantic Sugar (Clwb Music). Featuring six songs in a little under half an hour, it bristles with, in the words of Low’s Show Business number, “so many ideas” and a dishevelled grandiosity. Alice Low’s music bears comparison to the oddest fringes of the early 70s singer-songwriter explosion, with country twang and theatrical flourishes, and moving into the 21st century I hear Bobby Conn and Circuit Des Yeux – but if you’ve heard the component parts before, you may be wowed by how singular these songs sound, and how golden their composer’s production touch is.
Metamorphosis, the debut album by Bethan Lloyd, is released via Soulpunx, a label in Berlin; Lloyd has lived there recently, I believe, but is of north Walian extraction, with some of these eight songs claiming to have been written inside an Anglesey burial chamber and had their videos filmed in Ynys Mon. As for her music, folk and electronica is frequently combined, but taking a bombastic, almost theatrical approach rather than the common low-key alternative. Crunching trance synths undergird well-crafted vocal layering, with Aria going all-out on a ‘promo-only 12” Enya remix from 1996’ tip – there’s an accessible nature to the essence of most songs here, but Lloyd as producer deviates from that starting point dramatically. She’s playing FOCUS Wales and Cardiff Psych & Noise Fest in May, so try and catch her.
DEATH KNELL’S STEEL STRING THING
Death Knell’s Steel String Thing is a London string thing, but Noel Anderson – the main brain behind it – will always be from Porthcawl, where he started making anarcho punk in his mid-2000s-era mid-teens. Much water, and other things, has flowed under the bridge since then, and for now debut DKSST album Set West, Raising Hell (Crocodile Laboratories) is the culmination: 10 songs of ramshackle shuffling between folk, glam and psychedelia modes. Sometimes I think Robyn Hitchcock, then John Cale or H Hawkline or Guided By Voices, but these are pointers at most, with Anderson making a strong fist of finding his own voice here. He’s assisted by a band of pals including Amy Studt, who you may recall from a brief tilt at teenpop stardom 20 years ago.
Behind this pseudonym lies multifaceted UK dance producer Rich Thair, who is probably best known as part of Red Snapper. I wistfully recall dancing badly to their combo of live jazz instruments and electronic loops in various locations, twentysomething years ago, and as Thair now lives somewhere near Swansea I can include his new releases in this column. Dicky Continental – not a brand new alias, but only used for remixes until now from what I can tell – is far from a Red Snapper retread, but debut album Un (Acid Jazz) similarly weds human-derived beats and chords to all manner of digital post-production. Some sections approximate (classic-era) deep house at its smokiest; others betray an interest in modern composition, with Mavron titled in reference to its guest musicians the Mavron Quartet, and the manipulations of folky harmonium on the following track Pike are especially to my taste.
JON AIRDRIE AND OTHER ENABLERS
I enjoyed a previous album from about a year ago by Newport’s Jon Airdrie, who runs the annual Folk On The Lawn festival in Tintern. On that occasion, a band, the Enablers, were co-credited, but though that name remains for the new CD What Was Left, all its music was played and recorded by Airdrie. This seems to have been his cue to try out a stranger, more psychedelic sound, with synths, samples and spoken word sections all featuring across an expansive 57 minutes. At times the results land not far from the esoteric erudition of Current 93, although the inclusion of an Incredible String Band cover – from deep into their critically unfavoured era, too – might be a more accurate signpost towards influences. By sampling a drum break from this truly obscure 50-year-old Christian psych LP, Airdrie has also introduced me to a reet little banger – kudos!
Caught this Cardiff three-piece a little under a year ago, with no prior knowledge of them or what sort of music they played, and enjoyed their punky grunge shenanigans. This album, a self-released affair titled If Everyone’s An Expert…, is better again, with a tasty ‘early Sub Pop Records’ vibe cutting through via, especially, the guitar style of frontman Anthony Bee. Their arrangements make for some good examples of tension-and-release rock, and there are some touches of 80s goth, 90s dirge and – on album track Spirals – post-rocky spoken word, with lyrics which outline the demons of overthinking and self-doubt. A worthy companion to the stylistically comparable Only Fools And Corpses mini-album I reviewed in this column last month.
This Cardiff band’s earliest tracks traded in an eldritch kind of psychedelia, a genre descriptor which they still use despite modifying their sound considerably. Debut Red Telephone LP Hollowing Out is sophisticated, tuneful post-punk with plenty of gleaming Germanic synths. The obvious precedent for such a tonal shift – hippyish whimsy to existential brutalist pop – is David Bowie, whose vocal style RT frontman Declan Andrews has surely internalised, though by no means exclusively: I hear traces of Bolan, Ferry and, from further left field, Genesis P-Orridge in there too. Musically, while there’s still evidence of that psych grounding in certain guitar parts and effects, the whole maybe reminds me of Simple Minds’ Sons And Fascination more than anything. Red Telephone stake out their own identity on this strong album, though.
The latest release by Swansea label Lavender Sweep is a five-song cassette showcasing The Shunkos, from nearby Port Talbot. They play rudimentary garage punk which maintains the same slightly-above-mid tempo for pretty much the whole EP and sing about life’s entertaining mundanities (people who go off to university, Depop sellers, getting the bus, getting hammered at the weekend) over the top. It basically sounds exactly like The Chats, but with south-west Wales accents instead of Aussie bogan ones, and a vocalist who shouts random lines with way more intensity than others. Also, the sentiment and lyrics of Meal Deal are distinctly similar to the song Meal Deal by Panic Shack, which I mention less to infer plagiarism than to ask if we even needed one song about meal deals.
Another buyer-in to the cult of lathe cut 7” singles – assisted by an Irish label, Fuzzed Up & Astromoon – emerges in the form of Soundwire, psychedelic shoegazey hairshakers from Swansea. Some of the band have form going back to the days when shoegaze had just started being called shoegaze (for a fairly silly reason), but Soundwire are of a late 00s vintage, and the two songs here are a taster for their upcoming second album. Degrees Of Separation is the slightly more laidback of the two, with easygoing Krautrock-boogie rhythms and frothy space-sequencer FX. B-side One Day Too is about half the length of its companion track but kicks up the tempo with squealing garage-rock keys and a tasty, rusty guitar riff which brings out the Loop side of Soundwire I remember from seeing them live.
Easy-going countrified folk-rock with ample dual harmonising is the order of the day from Tapestri: Lowri Evans, last found on a collaborative album with Tom McRae, and Sarah Zyborska who you may know under her solo alias, Sera. Plenty of the 10 songs on Tell Me World, their debut album, have a classic-into-modern Nashville production aesthetic, with pedal steel deployed to wistful effect; others, like Come Alive, are a little folkier and almost ethereal, in the manner of the Sundays or the Cranberries. I find myself curious about who or what is having cold water poured on their rash statements in Crazy, Crazy Times: this present era is no such thing, frown Tapestri, concluding “stop saying that they are”.
words NOEL GARDNER