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Holy Hell! Mwng Turns 20

Holy Hell! Mwng Turns 20

The experience for listeners lacking a knowledge of the ancient tongue of Cymru (the Celtic term for Wales) may be one of uneasy enchantment.

While Catatonia had a fetchingly pretty vocalist and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci a winningly folksy saunter, their Welsh peers in Super Furry Animals preferred pranks and poses. These bands from the mid-1990s all sprang out on Ankst Records’ prolific roster. Between 1988 and 1997, about 80 releases from this indie label emerged, many of which shook up the styles of their homeland’s often staid music. Acts elevated the prominence of the Welsh language (and occasionally direct activism) in trip-hop, dub, or house music as well as pop and rock. Out of this milieu, SFA started off eclectically. Their techno impulses soon widened into glam, neo-psychedelic and progressive strands, roughly equivalent, perhaps, to America’s Flaming Lips. Out of Cardiff, SFA scored with Fuzzy Logic (1996) and Radiator (1997), gained notoriety for sampling Steely Dan for “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” and entered 1996’s summer pop festivals in a tank (whose costs may have hastened the dissolution of their label, Creation Records).

Therefore, SFA had a reputation to live up to after Guerrilla (1999). The middle of 2000 took the five musicians into into a calmer, quieter direction. Their growing tendency towards softer delivery of gentler melodies surfaced, this time as fifteen tracks sung by Gruff Rhys entirely in Welsh. (“Mwng”=”mane” in English; the cover shows a goat smoking a pipe.) Like much of the indie scene two-odd-decades ago, SFA tilted towards a Beach Boys’ evocation of sophisticated but accessible, and at times ambitious and playful, carefree, spacy pop. Huw Bunford’s guitar support and backing vocals add to the frothy mixture of processed sounds floating out of Cian Ciarân’s keyboards and gadgets. The experience for listeners lacking a knowledge of the ancient tongue of Cymru (the Celtic term for Wales) may be one of uneasy enchantment. Lyrics wander about while sweetly slurred elisions in Cymraeg alter with turbulent fricatives, which echo pleasingly the thick flow of off-kilter chants or light lilts.

Apparently these tracks stayed shelved for a while prior to recording, and that process took little time that summer of ’00. SFA’s English-language releases, before as after Mwng, take on more, with larger budgets afforded to production and composition. For all of SFA’s casual air, the off-handed nature of Mwng found an audience. Its highlight barely missed the Top Ten in Britain, no small feat for a tune sung in Welsh. As if an Austin Powers bop-freak-out, on the appropriately titled “Ysbeidiau Heulog” (“Sunny Intervals”) keyboards whirl and spin up a heady tribute to later stages of the British Invasion, as the drugs changed. Other inclusions dip into the band’s predilections for giddy or bleary songs that bounce along or lumber through.

Guto Pryce on bass and Dafydd Ieuan on drums provide a solid rhythm section, the veteran pair having played with Rhys in the earliest incarnation of what evolved into SFA. The quintet craft sharp arrangements that one’s proverbial “repeated listenings” bring out subtly. Once the pacing and moods of the articulated Welsh words settle in, they cushion and boost Rhys’ willful swoons and croons. The album re-creates the woozy feeling of waking up from a midsummer’s dream, whether night or day. The band’s determined experimentation may settle down in Mwng into more familiar arrangements than in SFA’s techno guise, but charm lingers.

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