It’s taken 9Bach all of one album to establish themselves as the most exciting thing to happen to traditional welsh song in many a year. Picking up reviews that praise their deep, dark, beguiling, adventurous arrangements they have enthralled and captivated all comers. Despite the language barrier, the visceral thrill of folk songs, especially the melancholy choices the band seem to specialise in, still translates. Thankfully for the non-Welsh speaking amongst us the band are prepared to explain themselves and in the live setting singer and keyboard player, Lisa Jȇn fills out the detail of the stories. For this CD, however, there are extensive notes. What needs no translation, however, is the excellent musicianship, their particular blend of the organic and the electronic, the traditional and transmuted that makes 9Bach unique and Tincian a thrill a minute.
It’s delightful to learn that the album’s title is a slippery little word with no natural equivalent in English and to some degree, the definition can even depend on which bit of Wales you are in and the context in which it is said. To try and sum up, it can mean a ringing sound, a bell like sound and by inference a clear as a bell sound. It can also mean to resonate and can be used in the sense of a murmur within a crowd at something secretive or particularly poignant. Finally perhaps there is the cartoonesque result of an attack that leaves the victim reeling with birds tweeting in orbit of the cranium, or a, “Boi-oi-oi-oing,” caption written above their reverberating skull. With that comes the suggestion that you can leave somebody tincian, without recourse to physical violence if the tongue is sharp and potent enough.
9Bach are built around the husband and wife duo of Lisa Jȇn and guitarist Martin Hoyland, but the pair have been keen to stress that although they are generally the font of all music, this is a proper band and everyone plays their part. There’s the extra voice of Mirain Haf Roberts, the Harp of Esyllt Glyn Jones, while her brother Dan Swain is the bass part of the rhythm section in conjunction with drummer Ali Byworth. They have a knack of finding space around each others playing and although some of this verges on minimalism, there is also an intricacy to the way these pieces are structured.
Given their adventurous sound, it’s no surprise to find that having established the potency of the Welsh tradition, they have already moved on. Most of Tincian is new original composition. It seems that Lisa was particularly inspired by a trip to Australia and and various meetings with the Aboriginal people. The ultimate recognition of this is the appearance of Lou Bennett of the Black Arm Band Company and Shellie Morris whose voices are added to Plentyn. There is one song plucked from the tradition, however, with a couple of poems also given new melodies by Lisa.
The album opens strongly with many of 9Bach’s signature elements to the fore. The song Lliwia literally translates as Colours, but here is about childbirth. The song is about the almost psychedelic experience of labour with the ultimate rush of delivering a new life into the world. A throbbing bass sets up a dub reggae style and the other instruments take their cues from that, creating a sparse and echoing backdrop as Lisa’s pure vocal tones unravel a gorgeous tune.
There is something of the tinkling sound in the percussion that permeates Llwynog, which translates as The Fox. The song references the Gryn Wigau a summit amongst the Carrendau, which is apparently the largest continuous area of high ground in Wales. The fox is a natural predator during the lambing season in particular and the suggestion here is that he has made his kill and is off, well ahead of the farmers gun and dogs. The song seems to capture all of the drama inherent in the setting, the kill and the chase. Again the pulsating bass tones, the strangely truncated main arpeggios, which gets its release through Lisa’s piano line create a tension that just builds and builds in intensity. In the end the song almost owes as much to club culture as folk music, although again the vocal melody and arrangement are outstanding.
Pebyll refers to a ruined stone building that Lisa discovered while out walking her dog. She was drawn to it despite the dog being spooked and her imagination ran riot. She has imagined a young girl and her grandmother living there in isolation and whilst in some ways it represents her relationship with her own Nain, there’s a lingering sadness as she pictures the sunset of the older woman’s life. It’s a sweet and tender waltz, but also ultimately the dance of death.
A mother’s love is also the subject of Plentyn, although this time with the pain of separation and a real anger. This is a song written in Australia about the stolen generation of children snatched form their Aboriginal parents, a practice that shockingly continued into the 70s. There’s a repeated vocal motif, a staccato, “Ah – ah – ah,” that again serves to heighten the tension and could perhaps represent a cry cut off by separation or impotent breast beating rage. Even without the lyrical sense, just knowing the subject is enough to invest the piece with a real power. This naturally enough is the song that features the guest singers.
Apparently about seeing someone you know in a state, Wedi Torri starts with a kind of grungy electric piano chord. It has a slow brooding quality that captures the disquieting sense of being knocked off kilter by what you have witnessed. The menace continues through the nourish, creep of Pa Le?, which is the one traditional song on the record although they freely admit to tampering with the format. It being a folk song, you just know that a young maid’s concern for the whereabouts of her true love will not end well, the red patch of ground near the church tower being the confirmation.
Two songs that are linked by the themes of quarrying and dislocation follow, also linked to Bethesda, both are also poems set to music by 9Bach. Ffarwel, which includes the splendour and richness of a male voice choir, some angular injections of guitar and synth and an ominous snare drum rattle is about a man leaving the quarry where he spent his working life. Whether he is retiring or the quarry closing, he will miss his colleagues and Lisa’s voice hangs in the a cappella climax as if to emphasise his loneliness. That theme is picked up by Liwybrau, which translates as pathways, but these are the quiet ways less well trodden, where the subject walks alone, feeling nothing but emptiness and contempt for the changes in their life, yet not wishing to burden anyone with their sorrow. It gets a striking minimalist treatment that perhaps resonates with Lisa and Martin’s time with the Australian Aborigines, but then lifts off through a wordless second part.
To cement the Australian connection, Lou Bennett again appears in the multi-layered a cappella of Babi’r Eirlys, or snowdrop baby. The song was inspired by the Welsh language novel, Gwreiddyn Chwerw, or Bitter Root by Jerry Hunter, which deals with the birth of a disabled infant and the triumph of a mother’s love in overcoming superstition, suspicion and prejudice to nurture the child to adulthood.
The final act sees Lisa writing in her third language and calling on her Greek ancestry. The title, Asteri Mou, literally translates as My Star and is a love song, a craving for the shining light. It finishes the album much as it began, with 9Bach’s signature sound, although this time around it’s almost like a repetitious, mesmeric invocation, the wish and the desire being answered by another gorgeous tune.
There are undoubtedly some dark themes running throughout, although it’s the sense of poignancy that you get from the wonderful melodies and the enthralling arrangements that makes this special. Somewhere in all of the stuff written about 9Bach, Lisa refers to their material as being soul songs and whichever language she is singing in, she certainly invests them with a very real sense of her own heart and soul. The band behind her meanwhile add something that is also uniquely theirs and the whole adds up to become as mysterious as it is revealing of ourselves, as beautiful as it is sad, as intricate as it is simple and as lonely as it is loved. This is profound music filled with the flowing life-stream that resonates through us all. Tincian indeed!
Review by: Simon Holland
9Bach will tour the UK in May and June:
15 CAERNARFON – Galeri
16 NEWTOWN – Theatre Hafren
20 WINCHESTER Railway
21 OXFORD Jericho Tavern
22 BRISTOL Louisiana
23 CARDIFF – Sherman Theatre
24 CARMARTHEN – Lyric
05 LONDON – Sebright Arms
06 BRIGHTON – Komedia Studio
Also appearing at the following Festivals
14 The Green Man Festival
27 End Of The Road Festival
GET YOUR TICKETS HERE: www.pulluptheroots.co.uk
‘Tincian’ out 12th May via Real World Records