Dan Amor, a bilingual singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Penmachno, a small Welsh village in the heart of Eryri (Snowdonia), has, in Rainhill Trials managed to produce a record which takes the whimsical, wide-eyed vibe of the psychedelic music of sixties cult heroes like Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayres and other luminaries of the London underground (the cultural movement, not the tube train system), successfully infuses it with the pragmatic realism of the 21st century and creates something at once familiar yet new.
Opening track and lead single Sister Anne sets the scene for the rest of the album: a laidback, strummed acoustic guitar over some very Lennon-esque piano by John Lawrence providing a remarkably full-sounding backdrop (with some nice chord changes) for Dan’s multi-tracked vocals. In just three minutes, this song – which is, according to the sleeve notes, “about a nunnery, an alcoholic nun, cats and the seaside” – manages to cast a worldly-wise side-eye over the controlling nature of much organised religion while simultaneously generating enough good vibes to fuel an entire decade of love and still managing to come up with an incredibly catchy hook.
It’s followed by what is, in effect, one longish track comprising a shorter instrumental introduction (Yr Awel – The Breeze in English) to the main piece, Y Gwynt (The Wind). Gone is the hazy summertime feel of the previous track, to be replaced by the chill of the winter wind which blows throughout. Although non-Welsh speakers miss out on Dan’s highly evocative tale, related from the point of view of the wind himself, the musicianship is such that it paints a vivid, self-contained sound picture on its own.
Brenhines Y Tonnau (Queen Of The Waves) successfully combines the naturalistic lyrical theme of the lyrics introduced in Yr Awel/Y Gwynt with the psychedelic musical feel of Sister Anne to come up with what I can best describe as bardic Americana. ‘Celticana’, anyone?
It’s followed by another short instrumental, Sgubor (Barn), featuring Dan on piano, before Spring Tide returns to the nautical theme for a gently wistful love song which ends on a sustained chord and the sound of off-mic studio chatter. Against this, Dusk Bird (the B-side of Sister Anne), bursts in with a guitar-powered heavy indie-rock number, over which Dan declaims some very cryptic lyrics about greener grass and hidden gems.
Diamonds In A Claw gives us another short but sweet taste of Dan’s unique Celticana sound; linking elements of acoustic and electronic music, it appears to be a paean to Tuscaloosa, a city in Alabama which was badly hit by a tornado in 2011. Serw is another short instrumental piano solo which still manages to incorporate a variety of ideas despite clocking in at just a minute in length. Landlubber opens with a field recording from a pub, all clinking glasses and background chat, out of which a suitably piratical voice emerges to lead the assembled crowd in an a capella sea shanty before an abrupt tape cut introduces Dan’s uptempo acoustic take on the traditional working song of the seaman.
The dreamy Y Ci (The Dog), all chiming guitars, sweet harmonies and billowing Hammond organ, despite Dan’s sleeve note about it being simply “a song about a dog, for dogs”, still manages to come back to earth long enough to reference Laika, the Soviet ‘space dog’ who died from overheating only hours after the launch of Sputnik 2; yet another victim of animal cruelty. So it’s perhaps worth noting here that, if you should buy this track as a digital download from Dan’s Bandcamp page, the proceeds from your purchase will go to the Snowdonia Animal Sanctuary.
The tracklist suggests that Y Ci is the last track on the album, but on my copy there’s a hidden twelfth track, Grey Truth, which starts after the dog has wandered off to go and bark at the moon. Heavily treated vocals over a distant piano evoke a hot summer’s day indoors; it’s a woozy, gauzy love song which nicely rounds out the album. Dan Amor has created an intriguing and engaging listen with this record; although the sixties psychedelia influence is present throughout, there’s much more to it than that. By turns gentle and hard-edged, carefree yet caring, Rainhill Trials is a beautifully crafted kaleidoscope of sounds and textures that reveals new facets on each listen.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now via Recordiau Cae Gwyn Records