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Album review: Fernhill “Amser” (FRUK)

June 26, 2014

Fernhill 'Amser'Since their first album (1996’s Ca’ Nôs) Fernhill have not once put a foot wrong, consistently delivering some of the finest folk music to have come out of Wales in the last two decades. Their last album Canu Rhydd was a tour de force which left you wondering how they could possibly better it, but with Amser they’ve done just that.

The band’s lineup remains unchanged although there is a richness to the production on Amser which serves the subject matter well. There are several themes here – love poetry, Welsh dance rhythm and the ballad form being the most obvious – but they aren’t necessarily so clearly delineated on record. Often a single song will contain elements of all but will flow between them in a fluid and seamless way. Opening track Llif demonstrates this very well: a love song of sorts to the river Rhymni, Julie Murphy’s lyrics switch between Welsh and English while the music ebbs and flows, sometimes Ceri Rhys Matthews’ strummed acoustic guitar is most prominent, then Christine Cooper’s fiddle, and all the while Tomos Williams’ muted trumpet provides a jazzy, after-hours feel.

The Self-Unseeing takes its cue from the love poetry of Thomas Hardy and one can only imagine what the eighteenth century Romanticist would have made of Fernhill’s musical setting of his work. Julie’s crystal vocals soar and flutter, entwining with Ceri’s sparse fingerstyle acoustic guitar to create a whole which is at once highly evocative of bygone days while remaining a thoroughly contemporary interpretation of Hardy’s poem. It’s followed by Aelwyd, in which Julie renders the haiku-like, tender description of the healing skills of the (presumably fictional) Mari Tarr over a delicate arrangement which coalesces from an almost discordant start into an energetic whirl, mirroring the feeling of recovery in a way which stops me in my tracks every time I hear it.

Based on a mediaeval Welsh poem, Commendacions continues the tradition of canu rhydd (literally ‘free songs’ or ‘free verse’) showcased so effectively on the previous album. It’s declaration of heartache by a man separated from his true love by ‘fifty miles and more’ which leaves the listener dumbfounded at Fernhill’s skill in weaving together old and new forms of words and music to create an exquisite description of a sense of restless longing.

It’s followed by the longform Boats, in which the protagonist reflects on a long life spent travelling, from his birthplace in a remote Welsh valley to Bristol, London and New York, all the while living with a deep sense of hiraeth – that indefinable, heartbreaking yearning for home, for which hiraeth has no direct English translation. Musically, Boats is structured in distinct passages which mirror the language shifts; from a quite abstract opening it moves into an uptempo jig, then settles back into a gentle acoustic passage before finding resolution in a downtempo section which combines elements of all the preceding parts.

Maintaining the sense of worldweariness, although set nearer to home, Blino ar fath Blaned is the sad tale of not being able to have the love of one’s life and of wishing to be far away. Julie’s telling of the story overflows with emotion, her voice flowing like clear water over the rocky riverbed of the arrangement, interweaving and tumbling over Christine’s strings and Tomos’ trumpet.

Barbara Elin is a reworking of a traditional ballad about a hard-hearted lover which has existed in many forms since at least the seventeenth century. Fernhill’s interpretation of this ancient tune is faithful to its spirit; Julie’s matter-of-fact delivery is ideally suited to Ceri’s relentless rhythm guitar as Christine’s agitated strings dance nimbly around Tomos’ plaintive trumpet. The Quarry provides a brief interlude of sorts; featuring a spoken-word reading of a poem by Daniel Huws over Ceri’s elegantly minimal guitar, it acts as a bridge into the following two conceptually-linked songs.

 

The gently uptempo Gwashel sets about waking the apple trees from their winter slumbers and scaring away evil spirits before Amser – the record’s title track and second longish song – examines in greater depth the concept of the passing of time, the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons. Opening with the sound of ticking clocks, a simple motif played by Ceri’s acoustic guitar and Christine’s fiddle provides the backdrop for the first two spoken-word verses invoking the spirit of Y Fari Lwyd (‘the Grey Mare’), a specifically Welsh form of wassailing which is still performed today although its roots are lost in the mists of ancient times. Julie sings the next verses as the guitar and strings bob and weave around each other, while Tomos’ trumpet hangs ribbons of melody over the lilting rhythm, evoking images of the mummers’ midwinter tree-dressing. An almost childlike chanting of a verse about the wren – long associated with Gwyl San Steffan (St. Stephen’s Day) throughout the Celtic diaspora – is underpinned by handclapping as the music settles back into a more pastoral feel behind a lyric describing the wassail refreshments. Barely has the listener caught her breath before the dance picks up again, this time interspersed with a short recitation as the strings and trumpet whirl with abandon towards the conclusion of this stunningly epic tale of what the sleeve notes refer to as “a collision between mechanical time, seasonal time, life time, generational time, cultural time, poetic time, no time…”

There’s a significant change of mood for the album’s third longform song, Bro, with its vivid description of the damage done by the greed of those who drove the Industrial Revolution deep into the heart of Wales, despoiling the land’s beauty forever. There’s a sense of controlled anger implicit throughout the musical arrangements, from the interplay between Ceri’s driving guitar and Christine’s raw strings, with Julie’s heartfelt vocal delivery making a poignant counterpoint to the edgy anguish of Tomos’ trumpet parts.

The penultimate track, Harmless, returns to canu rhydd and in the process lifts the mood somewhat. It’s retelling of a sixteenth century love poem which pulls no punches in extolling the virtues of foreplay to a selfish male lover. Musically, the playing is delicate and tactful, making a nice contrast with the subtle forcefulness of the lyrics. Y Folantein draws together the prevailing themes of Amser; love, poetry, nature, the passing of the seasons – time – to end on an optimistic note, looking forward to the coming of spring after a cruel winter. Julie’s vocals soar like the lark on the warm breeze of Christine’s dancing fiddle and Tomos’ nimble trumpet while Ceri’s guitar flows like the meltwater in the streams off the hillsides.

Their effortless ability to fuse ancient and modern, Welsh and English traditions into a seamless and coherent, contemporary whole without compromising any aspect of this multitude of strands marks Fernhill out as one of the finest folk groups we are blessed to be able to witness today. By turns enchanting, absorbing and powerful, Amser is a very human masterpiece of lyrical and musical creativity which will provide sustenance for your heart and soul for a long time to come. I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (26 June 2014)

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Edited to add: I’m not entirely sure what motivates me to write, but I do know that hoping for external validation isn’t a factor. That said, it is gratifying when an artist genuinely ‘gets’ that I ‘get’ their music – and in this instance, have even provided them with fresh insights. Thank you, Ceri.

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