Hen Ogledd

No Wood Accepted

Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington roll around getting filthy, but still manage to leave Johny Lamb wanting more

On this short follow up to 2020’s Free Humans we find Hen Ogledd, initially at least, in apparently humorous and playful form. From the first squelching notes of ‘Monty Don’s Handset’ I find myself both rolling my eyes and chuckling with a kind of caustic glee. The band seem to have taken on a manifesto of deliberate awkwardness as a core methodology for their output.

None of this should work. I should find it stupid, irritating, risible even. But I don’t. Not at all. It carries something of Brix Smith shouting ‘BANANA!’ on ‘Dr Faustus’ by The Fall. You don’t know what it’s doing precisely, but it’s great.

Then, as it goes on, what initially feels full of quirk becomes increasingly upsetting and troubling. It’s at the point where the worrisome spoken vocal reaches its climax of a repeated shriek,“Whilst no one can predict the future!” about two-thirds through ‘Tip Trip (Trip to the Tip)’ (the group’s convulsive electro tribute to ‘The Gift’ from White Light/White Heat), that we realise we are in very choppy waters indeed. At points these tracks border on something akin to a very real psychosis. That said, I still haven’t lost my sense of glee. It’s a difficult thing to balance, but they have it nailed.

This record comprises a host of wonky electronics, hints of space rock, bizarre sound design, and deceptively complex arrangement with weird grooves. It is often challenging. Particularly rhythmically where percussive strikes batter down like heavy rainfall on corrugated iron while synth and acoustic instrument battle it out for dominance in a sound world where chiptunes merge with warmer musical tropes to make something brilliantly ghastly. I’m aware that the words I’m using may sound negative, but I don’t mean them to. It’s ghastly in the way a great ghost story or a brilliant b-movie might be. We can roll around and get filthy in its great grizzly swamp.

The version of ‘Little Donkey’ is almost horrifying. A sort of homage in atonality. This must have been about as fun to make as making an album can possibly be. There is a sense of virulent and purposeful experimentalism here that speaks to the band’s viewpoint, and its infectious outcome. ‘Night Bus’ provides perhaps the album’s most coherent moment, with solid bass ostinato and a rich, darkly brooding atmosphere of menace and approaching trauma. It is perhaps closer to more established synthpop tropes than elsewhere on the record, though it by no means places easily in that category. I say this only in relation to what surrounds it.

The short final track ‘Potential Exit’ is a lovely exercise in moving towards and away from dissonance that provides so little harmonic stability that you are left quite disorientated. For me though, the highlight is ‘Starwisp’. The track that seems to most fully articulate the record’s heart and soul. At once fragile, troubled, funny, and complex. It moves unhurriedly, but with gentle agitation through its almost seven-minute duration without ever settling. It is like the familiar onset of a panic attack. It borrows from many places at once but carries an integrity entirely its own. Startling, sinister, deranged, and as you’d expect, absolutely deserving of your attention. I want more of this.

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