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Album review: 9Bach “Anian”

April 12, 2016

Reflective but accessible, thoughtful yet soulful, Anian is an altogether stunning and engrossing album of depth and diversity which touches the listener’s head, heart and soul.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of 9Bach 'Anian'Anian is the third album by 9Bach and builds on the foundations laid down by 2014’s Tincian to expand the band’s exploration of Welsh folk traditions and contemporary music to include influences from elsewhere around the world, always looking outside as much as in. Recorded live (mostly!) at Real World Studios, with the lightest touch when it came to overdubs, it covers a range of sometimes challenging subjects in a way which makes each of its eleven songs an engaging listen, always accessible even as they push the boundaries of their craft as musicians, singers and writers.

Inspired by the novel One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard, the brooding ‘Llyn Du’ (‘Black Lake’) begins with slow electric piano chords over which Lisa Jên’s otherworldly, wordless vocals swoop and dive, before breaking loose into an irresistible rolling rhythm driven by Ali Byworth’s kicking percussion and Dan Swain’s fast, rumbling bass.

‘Anian’ builds on the sense of anticipation, of something about to happen; its mood matching Lisa Jên’s comment that connections that can only made when we start paying attention to the world around us. Martin Hoyland’s wah-wah guitar and distorted licks add funk to the groove, again powered by the tight but spacious rhythm section – but it’s the combination of Esyllt Glyn Jones’ rippling harp and the deft interplay between the voices that tie it all together; the billowing echo which wreathes the vocals towards the end is especially effective.

The playing of the band as a whole is consistently impressive, but the rhythm section of Ali’s percussion and Dan’s bass demonstrate an almost telepathic interaction in the dub-infused ‘Yr Olaf’. Its slow-but-steady, sure-footed rhythm shows a deep understanding of the importance of the spaces between the notes, while the a capella harmony vocal sections show real empathy for the song’s lyrical content: an elegy to the last white rhino in Sudan, another victim of poachers. Lisa Jên’s performance in particular fizzes with a righteous anger towards the greed and rampant egoism of those for whom the planet is simply an infinitely exploitable resource; it’s a powerful and moving highlight of the album.

Based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, the Russian child who left home at the age of four to escape domestic abuse before being adopted by a pack of feral dogs, ‘Ifan’ is an appropriately sensitive composition. Describing the moment when child and dogs are finally separated, Lisa Jên’s delicate vocals are accompanied by a stately, flowing piano swathed in a huge churchy reverb; joined by a hammer dulcimer over its central descending riff, the song invokes cityscapes seen through broken windows. Pervaded by a sense of mystery, the atmosphere is heightened by ghostly, rumbling electronic sounds appearing and disappearing throughout to create a piece awash with ambience.

‘Si Hwi Hwi’ takes its name from an old Welsh lullaby, written originally by Rowland Walter (a poet from Blaenau Ffestiniog who emigrated to America in the 19th century) as a response to the injustices of slavery. Instrumentally, there’s a gripping interplay between drums and bass with distant treated electric slide guitar fills adding to the atmosphere. However it’s the looping, layered call-and-response wordless vocals behind the main melody that are the heart of this arrangement, particularly towards the end where the breathy sound dissolves into silence. It’s a stunning interpretation, one of my favourite tracks on the album, and shows what can be achieved when imagination is given prominence over a ‘straight’ reworking.

Drawing inspiration from rebetiko (also known as rembetiko), a form of urban Greek folk music which seems to have been undergoing an ongoing revival since the 1960s, the lyric of ‘Cyfaddefa’ (‘An Admission’) finds its protagonist imprisoned and coming to terms with the fact that, as Lisa Jên says, “we are all guilty”. It showcases the full band, building from a low-key electronic drone at its start, a rimshot snare tattoo and kick drum paving the way for Lisa Jên’s cut-crystal clarity over a treated electric guitar and underpinned by a vast depthcharge bass. An a capella interplay of three voices at the bridge is the calm before the storm as the song builds to its dramatic climax, encompassing elements of both Mediterranean (flamenco) and Western Asian musics.

Tapping into an ancient folkloric symbol and taking a bird’s eye view, ‘Brain’ tells of a crow asking a child to accept the gifts he brings in this positive, celebratory song. The rising arpeggios of the harp sparkle, mirrored by a fluttering piano, while impossibly high harmonies effortlessly display the peerless vocal interplay between Lisa Jên, Esyllt and Mirain. Punctuated by warm and precise guitars over rumbling blow-out-your-speakers bass and rattly galloping drums this is a stunning ensemble performance and another of the album’s highlights.

Described as “a lament for the dying of the Welsh nation”, ‘Heno’ (‘Tonight’) uses the words of the late Gerallt Lloyd Owen, who was widely considered to be one of the best strict-metre poets in Wales, as the starting point for a radical deconstruction of the Welsh musical tradition of Cerdd Dant. In eisteddfodau competitions, a singer performs a counter melody over a harp backing; in ‘Heno’, the voices sing the harp part and harmonise the melody. The result is a kaleidoscope of layered, wordless vocals and it’s a stunning demonstration of what can be achieved by throwing out the rulebook.

Structured around a simple piano and harp motif, the long, hanging notes that introduce ‘Deryn’ (‘The Bird’) evoke a sense of wistfulness which is entirely in keeping with its lyrical theme. Joined by the rest of the band midway through – a phased ‘whoosh’ of cymbals and long, slow bass notes – it’s the musical textures that capture the listener’s ear, particularly the sound of fingers on the strings of an acoustic guitar, before it all ebbs away to harp and piano notes which reflect its introduction.

The penultimate ‘Ambell Hiraeth’ (‘Homesickness’) is a combination of three Welsh traditional folk tunes woven carefully together by a minor key piano over which delicate vocals, close up, whisper in your ear like the sounds of the waves heard in a seashell. This is a truly mesmeric performance, to the extent that, on my first listen, it was only when it ended I realised I’d been holding my breath…

The album closes with another reinterpretation of a traditional song, ‘Breuddwd Y Bardd’ (‘The Poet’s Dream’); starkly fragile, ethereal vocals counterpoint an earthy, muscular electric bass to provide an impressionistic conclusion. “The dreamer dreams the dreams of his heart”, indeed!

Included in the package is a companion CD, Yn dy lais (In your voice), which is the result of a project initiated by the band to supplement Anian with corresponding spoken word interpretations of the stories which avoid simply giving literal English language translations of the lyrics. Yn dy lais brings together writers, actors, poets and musicians – Peter Gabriel, Maxine Peake and Rhys Ifans among them – in a unique collection of retellings of the songs using the emotion, sentiment, themes, and, sometimes, parts of the original story. The project is innovative and creatively very successful and if you’re as engaged by the music as I am, this companion disc is a definite ‘must hear’.

It’s a sign of 9Bach’s maturity as musicians that they are able to balance some quite dark lyrical themes and concerns with lush and atmospheric arrangements that remain true to their creative visions. Reflective but accessible, thoughtful yet soulful, Anian is an altogether stunning and engrossing album of depth and diversity which touches the listener’s head, heart and soul. Never forgetting its roots, yet grounded in the present, Anian looks set to become an essential part of a lot of people’s soundtrack to a brighter future – and deservedly so.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (12 April 2016)

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