Allan Yn Y Fan mark their twentieth anniversary year as one of Wales’ top purveyors of what the band succinctly describe as “Celtic music for the 21st century” with their sixth album, NEWiD (‘Change’, yn Saesneg), a collection of twelve (mostly) traditional tunes arranged by the sextet and reflecting their strengths as a live act.
‘Marwnad Yr Ehedydd/Tune for a New Bought Accordion’ combines the traditional (‘Marwnad Yr Ehedydd’) with the new (Kate Strudwick’s ‘Tune for a New Bought Accordion’) with a quiet confidence that underlines the band’s deep love of their cultural heritage as well as their skill as musicians. Alternating between a sparse melancholy (well-suited to Catrin O’Neill’s crystal voice) and a more uptempo passion, the set makes a fine opener which paves the way nicely for the instrumental ‘Sbaen Wenddydd,’ a celebration of Spanish connections to Wales, with Alan Cooper’s nimble fiddle-playing to the fore.
Sung unaccompanied and alternating between the Welsh and English languages, ‘Cân Merthyr’ displays not only a keen sense of dry wit but also showcases how well the ensemble’s disparate vocals mesh together. A shortish piece, it makes a well-placed bridge between the previous track and the album’s fourth tune – or, more accurately, set of two tunes, both instrumentals – ‘O’Connell’s Extension/Cooper’s Bow,’ written by Chris Jones and Alan Cooper respectively. ‘O’Connell’s Extension’ celebrates what the CD’s liner notes refer to as the “hypermarket wars” between two shops in the small village of Brideswell, County Roscommon, in the Republic of Ireland. Chris’ accordion captures the mood of the moment perfectly before stepping back for the fiddle showcase that is ‘Cooper’s Bow,’ a tune which “came out of Alan’s spontaneous delight at the purchase of a new ‘implement.'”
Tradition has it that ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ (‘David of the White Rock’) was composed by the 18th-century harpist David Owen on his deathbed. With lyrics added nearly a century later by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes, it’s since become one of Wales’ most famous airs and Catrin’s a capella rendition is, I think, one of the most haunting versions of the composition that I’ve ever heard.
‘Slip Jigs’ tips its hat to the Irish step dancing tradition with a set of three tunes – ‘Jig Pultague/Taflwn yr Hosan/Diferion Arian’ – which serve as a reminder of the long-standing historic links between two of the most ancient nations of the Celtic diaspora. In the first tune, ‘Jig Pultague,’ Geoff Cripps’ intricate fingerstyle guitar provides the springboard for some gorgeous, airy multi-layered flutes before a deceptively simple chord progression modulates into the fiddle-powered ‘Taflwn yr Hosan.’ The sequence is completed by the graceful ‘Diferion Arian,’ where the interplay between Geoff’s guitar and Linda Simmonds’ mandolin, as delicate as faded lace, ties the ensemble together as the flowing accordion of Chris Jones intertwines with Kate’s flute. The set is one of the finest of its kind that I’ve heard and is a definite highlight of the album.
Described as “a song of longing to be free from work”, the CD sleeve notes add that it’s unclear if ‘Y Gaseg Felen’ (‘The Chestnut Mare’) is a traditional tune or whether it was composed by the historian and activist Meredydd Evans, from whom it was collected in the 1960s. This ambiguity is reflected in the band’s skilful arrangement which sets the melody to a very contemporary folk backing. Underpinned by a circular chord progression, Catrin’s vocals soar above gently undulating flute and string lines to create a dreamy and imaginative soundscape. The reflective mood continues in the instrumental ‘Tune for Lilian’, which was composed by Kate to commemorate an unexpected legacy from her former landlady from 35 years ago. The sense of empathy which pervades the arrangement is truly touching and the piece is one of my favourite tracks.
The set ‘Dŵr Glan/Russian Reel/Pibddawns Y Mwnci’ sandwiches two traditional tunes between a new composition by Kate and the mix works very well indeed. ‘Dŵr Glan’ (‘Fresh Water’) refers to the New Year’s custom in which Calennig singers would sprinkle water on the doors of houses for good luck in the coming year and powerfully portrays the sense of being outdoors beneath cold, whirling snow flurries. Kate’s ‘Russian Reel’ offers a more uptempo take on the wintry theme, setting the scene for the celebratory ‘Pibddawns Y Mwnci’ (‘The Monkey’s Hornpipe’), which provides a fittingly raucous conclusion.
An abrupt change of mood is heralded in the a capella opening to ‘Gorthrwm Y Gweithiwr’ (‘Oppression of the Workers’), a mid-19th century protest ballad collected in Ebbw Vale at a time when it was becoming abundantly clear that the financial and material rewards of the Industrial Revolution were not finding their way to the workers in the mines and ironworks. My Welsh is a little too rusty to follow the lyrics exactly, but the sense of injustice transcends language in this slow-burning arrangement.
The penultimate ‘Bishop of Llandaff’s and Frank Hennessy’s Kairdiff Quick Steps’ is a product of a 2014 commission to write music inspired by the people and places of the city of Cardiff. The idea of a dancing clergyman is mind-boggling enough on its own, but accompanied by a nod of appreciation to the near-legendary folk singer and radio presenter Frank Hennessy – “the professor of real Kardiff speak” – takes the tune into the realms of the positively surreal. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of fun at play here which is a pleasure to hear expressed so clearly in this gloriously unhinged arrangement. The album closes with ‘Ym Mhontypridd Mae’n Nghariad,’ a traditional Welsh love song about a young farmer hoping to impress his beloved with his prized speckled cows. It’s a slow and stately performance and, combined with the nuances of the story, brings the record to an emphatic and emotional conclusion. Watch the video premiere for Ym Mhontypridd Mae’n Nghariad below:
NEWiD captures Allan Yn Y Fan at a specific moment in time and finds this long-established and well-regarded band still at the top of their game and clearly enjoying the music they make. Combining a mix of original compositions and their arrangements of traditional music and song, NEWiD is as fine a showcase as you’ll find of their unique vision of “Celtic music for the 21st century” and is sure to become a firm favourite of long-term fans and newcomers alike.
Sep 23 – Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen
Sep 25 – Chapter, Cardiff
Sep 28 – Borough Theatre, Abergavenny
Oct 01 – Neuadd Dwyfor, Pwllheli
Nov 10 – Blackwood Miner’s Institute
Nov 11 – Redwick Village Hall
Nov 12 – Ty Siamas, Dolgellau
Nov 18 – The Met, Abertyleri
Nov 19 – Canolfan Ucheldre, Holyhead
Nov 26 – The Welfare, Ystradgynlais