, October 26th, 2016 13:22
‘Hen Ogledd’ was the Celtic name for the ‘old North’, a region covering the North of England and South of Scotland somewhere around the sixth and seventh centuries. It was first used by avant bard Richard Dawson and harpist extraordinaire Rhodri Davies for their only album thus far as a duo – a free and feral framing of the symbiotic relationship that had already begun to enhance their solo releases. Now it refers to an expanded line-up whose pooled vibrations were captured one night in November 2015 in a dilapidated community space, formerly Newcastle’s Star and Shadow Cinema. Here, Dawson and Davies were joined by local arts curator and synth-pop artist Dawn Bothwell whose voice and electronics increasingly haunt the latter two-thirds of the album, while recordings of Laura Cannell’s recorder and Jeff Henderson’s timpani were deployed into the first.
The mystical yet tangible music they have made together feels firmly situated. Before I had even understood what the band’s name referred to, or read about the recording, the wayward sounds of Bronze by themselves promoted a strong sense of being deeply rooted in a confluence of place and time.
On this initial listen to the long opening track, curiously named ‘Ancient Data’, I imagined the group had slid stealthily into a local long barrow, armed with acoustic instruments and a generator for their amps and small electronic devices. Lighting the burial chamber with candles they set about testing the percussive qualities of the objects they found there – jewellery and figurines – treasures belonging to the sleepers in the hill. Settling in, at first tentatively, bowed strings warm the air, recorders lay down a wistful path and an irregular drum machine throws feint beats into the trembling air of agitated objects. It seemed as if this was improvisation through possession, where a temporal cleft pierced the land to channel the lives and events the location had endured.
All this is not to say Bronze is situated in the past; on the contrary, it is defiantly modern, exuding experimentation. The now familiar Bailey-meets-Beefheart gait of Dawson’s amplified acoustic guitar and the coarse knitted textures spun by Davies’ extended techniques on several harps are joined and often eclipsed by diverse electronic and less identifiable sources. ‘Beyond Belief’ opens with synth tones floating like ground mist over gravelly, burnt distortion, before fervent strings surge over uneven ritualistic rhythms. Then ‘Amputated Video’ switches modes, foregrounding acidic rave blurps that move like Space Invaders before their arcade gets trashed, as if someone is defending the virtual invasion with the real contents of a toolbox.
Unlike much experimental music that can pose various challenges, be it alienating, overly academic, cold and austere or plain impenetrable, Bronze is warm and inviting. While not always immediately accessible, it encourages its listeners to go with it, to delve in and find a way in to its way-out-ness. Perhaps this is due to the extraordinary balance of mysticism and realism it can strike where primitive drums invoke the ancients as contemporary creative manoeuvres (that occasionally remind of the resourcefulness of This Heat) are evoked on top.
The album culminates with two short tracks guided by Bothwell’s voice. She soulfully sings of a burning and the need to “get out” on ‘Gwawr in Reverse’; the accumulating looped layers of her song hypnotise over a sparse accompaniment of dank dripping and rattling. The urgency is then dramatically upped for the final piece as, following Dawson and Davies most violent lurches, Bothwell resumes the call to “get out”, but this time unsung and commanding instead of beguiling. It is as if the everyday is leaking into our subconscious, awakening to eavesdropped arguments, and returning us to the surface from Bronze’s uncanny, underworld energies.