BARAFUNDLE – GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI (1997)
There was a vast upsurge in Welsh identity in the music of the ’90s. A nation with a completely distinct language, culture and identity had been subsumed for centuries into its larger neighbour, enveloped by legislative and statistical purposes, and, while plenty could be said about the Labour government that took over in 1997, one of its lasting legacies was to restore some of that identity to Wales and Scotland, delivered by referendum within months of it gaining power.
The inevitability of this succession, and the accompanying national mood, appeared to be mirrored by what I guess we must call Britpop, which cast up music of highly varying degrees of quality, originality and durability. A subset of it was arguably the most active and diverse music scene Wales has ever had, with an array of bands for whom being Welsh was never incidental and often central (full disclosure: I’ve spent exactly one day in Wales -one day more than I’ve spent in America. Does this make me more qualified to comment on Wales than on America? ).
It began with Manic Street Preachers who, once they had got their tiresome posturing out of their systems and admitted that they were actually into much of the music they initially professed to despise, proved to be as earnest as they were eloquent and fervent Welsh patriots. Catatonia, despite an opportunistic appropriation of buzzwords that brought them some bludgeoningly ubiquitous hits, encapsulated the mood with the title song of their 1998 album International Velvet, a Cymric call to arms in the verses helpfully condensed into the English chorus “Every day, when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh,” sung by Cerys Matthews in an accident broader than the Menai Bridge. Even Stereophonics, before lumpen rock impulses and life-on-the-road commonplaces overwhelmed them, offered sharply-drawn vignettes that were universal but unmistakably informed by the Wales they had witnessed.
The Welsh language was particularly crucial to two bands -Super Furry Animals, for whom an album entirely in Welsh (2000’s Mwng) was, after a string of hits, a logical step for a band not renowned for those things and liberated from the expectations of the recently-folded Creation – and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
Of all these bands, Gorky’s have always been the only one I’ve truly cherished. There’s always been something downright lovable about them; partly a warmth that was sometimes wilfully mistaken for tweeness (“whimsical arse” was one petulant verdict), partly their deployment of well-worn influences (Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt) in an inventive and dextrous manner (their irreverent cover of Wyatt’s O Caroline notwithstanding), and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to come off at unforseen tangents and try to confound the listener – often succeeding effortlessly.
This makes them heirs to probably the greatest Welsh band of them all, Young Marble Giants (whose story will be told here before long) and tells of an ability to tap into the spirit of Welsh tradition found at the annual Eisteddfod music and literature festival – fittingly, as drummer Euros Rowlands’ late father, Dafydd, was a writer who was elevated to the post of the festival’s archdruid. Welsh folk has all the mystery and strangeness of its counterparts in other UK nations at their best but seems to lack the over-jollity and sentimentality they have at their worst. This gave Gorky’s a distinctive edge and enabled them to dodge the grave prog allegations served on anyone who strays too close to a harmonium or an un-jazz brass instrument.
For instance: St David himself could have joined the cloister chants that open Pen Gwag Glas (Empty Blue Head) but it wrongfoots with four or five tempo changes, from mellow saunter to Fall-do-glam stomp and back again. There’s a similar vocal tension in the rapid ascent and plummet of the harmonies on Better Rooms, while the gentler cadences of Sometimes The Father Is The Son are an unlikely echo of the Hollies’ Bus Stop, but to far more sombre ends. Then the very late 20th-century pop glide of Starmoonsun is abruptly interrupted by a trio of shawms, a reed instrument that immediately evokes Plantaganet courts, doublets and hoses. They hint at the Renaissance grandeur of Dead Can Dance but an endearing – though never flippant – playfulness is seldom far from the surface.
And back to those instruments: that harmonium dominates opener, and second single, Diamond Dew, where more tempo shifts – Gorky’s truly revelled in them – are chivvied by a Jew’s harp and hasten along an ambiguous tale of warm domesticity alongside something seemingly more sinister – does “the uncovering of the bodies as the giant sun soars up” merely mean people peeling off to enjoy some rays? Or has a grim discovery been made beneath the soil?
There’s more double meaning on Heywood Lane, the most straightforwardly comely song on the album. The purposeful stride of acoustic guitar and piano is offset by some giddy violin by Megan Childs, while her brother Euros relates a visit to relatives (the eponymous lane is in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, not too far from Gorky’s hometown of Carmarthen, and appears to be full of hotels and guest houses). In the first and second chorus, we’re told “the faces are all the same” – reassurance at familiarity or the same familiarity breeding what it usually breeds? Third and final chorus – “the faces they’re not the same:” genuine sorrow at losing what you’ve held dear or a realisation that you didn’t appreciate what you had until it’s gone? The question remains unresolved as a stomp brings matters to a close.
Yet more time travel comes on Miniature Kingdoms, which starts with a horn blast belonging firmly in the type of Roman epic that was churned out at the rate of roughly one a month in the ’50s, which usually starred Victor Mature or Steve Reeves and which invariably had Atilla pronounced to rhyme with “battler.” It recurs to punctuate a song which elsewhere floats on a delicate bed of tre,olo guitar, horns in the more familiar guise of a Philly-style breeze and, out of nowhere, Euros vamping like Bryan Ferry circa 1972 as a chant urges him “go back today!” to end his exile. Enough ideas for five songs in the space of four minutes – meanwhile, the music press were in a flap over Heavy Stereo and the Llama Farmers. They were also overlooking Dark Night, which imperceptibly shifts from sweet to unsettling and, magnificently, has four members credited with playing ‘gas tank.’
Gorky’s would rarely sound as overtly Welsh again. There were two Welsh language song’-s on their next album, Gorky 5, but none on 1999’s Spanish Dance Troupe. Meanwhile the medieval element of their sound was gradually eroded and an unexpected country flavour took its place (cue gags about swapping the middle ages for middle age). These records were, if anything, even lovelier than Barafundle but it was there that they were at their most mischievous, uninhibited and brazenly inventive. Hear it and you’ll be telling it “Dw i’n dy garu di” – go on, look it up (PG).