Ruins/Adfeilion, the new album from The Gentle Good (Gareth Bonello) is a collection of ten compositions which, although not representing a single concept, have common themes of history, identity and social commentary.
Traditional songs are, as Gareth notes, a staple of his live sets, so his choice of ‘Gwen Lliw r Lili (Gwen Colour of the Lilly)’ from the Maria Jane Williams Collection, Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg (1844) as the album’s opener is entirely fitting. It’s a short instrumental piece, played solo by Gareth on harmonium, and sets the mood for the album.
The lyrical theme of ‘Pen Draw r Byd (The Far Side of the World)’ is found in many folk traditions – the young woman waiting anxiously for her beloved’s return from the sea – but Gareth deftly turns it around to create what he describes as his “feminist zombie folk song”, in which the young woman curses the sea and wishes it be left to the lonesome cries of the seagulls. It’s a neat twist on the ancient tale and the gently swaying arrangement maintains the moody feel with Gareth’s intricate guitars and piano ebbing and flowing throughout, anchored by some understated bass playing from Callum Duggan, but it’s the contribution from Georgia Ruth Williams (vocals and harp) which really raises the piece to new heights; a definite highlight of the album.
‘Rivers of Gold’ finds Gareth paying respect to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, two of the great folk musicians and masters of the protest song, with a lyrical critique of one of the scourges of our times: trickle-down economics, in which, to paraphrase the old joke, money is appropriated by the rich in the hope that it will trickle down to the needy. In fact, this never seems to happen and Gareth’s response to the widening gap between rich and poor, both nationally and globally, was to write this song which – as he says – “made it plain to those in power that we know what they’re up to, even if they don’t care”. The song’s arrangement is bolstered by some bittersweet strings (performed by The Mavron Quartet) and Gareth’s own Dylanesque harmonica break in the middle.
‘Y Gwyfyn (The Moth)’ offers a little light to contrast with the shade of some of the other tunes on the album with a lyric imagining what it would be like to be a moth on a warm summer’s night. In these increasingly bleak times of ours, I’m in full agreement with Gareth’s thought that, sometimes, a little escapism is an entirely valid way to avoid drowning in despair. The arrangement is dreamy and warm with the Mavron Quartet’s strings the flickering candlelight around which Gareth’s melody dips and floats. Add in an unobtrusively tight rhythm section (Jack Egglestone’s drums and Callum Duggan’s bass) and it’s easy to let the song enfold you and gently blow away your blues. A lovely, soothing song and one of my personal favourites of the album.
The album’s title track and its undoubted centrepiece, ‘Ruins/Adfeilion’, is a lengthy piano instrumental accompanied by a field recording of a thunderstorm recorded by Gareth on a visit to Western Australia, interspersed with some well-placed splashes of tone colour from the horns of Fiona Bassett (French horn), Ceri Jones (trombone) and Tomos Williams (trumpet). To quote Gareth’s notes, “the title reflects a dawning realisation that we don’t get to live in a world of our own making but rather amongst the ruins of previous generations”. I’ve been thinking about this remark a fair bit during my preparation for this review and, while it could be interpreted as meaning we simply have to make the best of what we’re given – a sort of helpless fatalism – I think there may also be a more positive response implied; namely that it’s up to each generation to take a longer view and actively work on leaving the place in a fit state for our children and grandchildren. A tall order, for sure, but the sooner we get started, the better…
Referred to by Gareth as the album’s second protest song, ‘Suffer the Small Birds’ (a deliberate misquote of Shakespeare) is a subtle but pointed critique of the way inequalities such as wealth and power are hoarded and weaponised by the privileged few against the oppressed majority; a situation which is untenable even in the best of times. Gareth’s intricate fingerstyle playing is effortlessly fluid over Jack and Callum’s rhythm section, while Georgia’s harmony vocals are breathtakingly beautiful.
Written in despair at the lack of an appropriate response from both the UK and the EU to the ongoing refugee crisis, ‘Bound for Lampedusa’ looks at the situation from the perspective of a group of refugees drifting in the Mediterranean, wondering what their fate will be. Modulating between minor and major, its tempo gradually accelerating, it’s a powerfully emotive performance which deserves to be heard far and wide. Profit from this track will be donated to Oasis Cardiff, a centre that provides much needed social services to refugees and asylum seekers in the city.
Dedicated to Gareth’s former employers, ‘Un i Sain Ffagan (One for Saint Fagans)’ is an instrumental duet between Gareth (acoustic guitar) and Dylan Fowler (mandocello) which displays the respective virtuoso playing of both musicians, paving the way for the album’s penultimate track, ‘The Fisherman’. Gareth’s unflinchingly realistic view of the world informs this portrayal of loneliness and isolation described so vividly by the American poet and novelist Richard Brautigan and to whom ‘The Fisherman’ is a tribute. A thoughtful and introspective composition featuring Georgia Ruth’s sweet harmonies, Callum’s reassuring bass and some subtle lap steel contributions from Dylan, this is an altogether lovely song and a highlight of the record.
The album closes with ‘Merch y Morfa (Estuary Girl)’, with Gareth accompanying himself on multitracked harmonium and guitar on a meditative lament for his late grandmother. A brief extract from a field recording midway through features the plaintive call of a curlew, seemingly singing its own lament.
It takes a rare talent to find hope and beauty in the darkest corners of existence and there’s no doubt that The Gentle Good have that quality in abundance; it shines like a beacon throughout the compelling and immersive listening experience that is Ruins/Adfeilion. Steeped in the folk traditions of Wales yet fully attuned to the present day, Ruins/Adfeilion is an absorbing, thoughtful and ultimately forward-looking collection of songs which perfectly showcase Gareth’s flawless musicianship and creative vision.
Ruins / Adfeilion is released 14 October 12016 via Bubblewrap Records
Available to pre-order via: Bubblewrap (Ltd edition 2 colour LP / CD / Digital Download)
Prior to this review, Folk Radio UK ran a series of exclusive live videos from Gareth, recorded live at The Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff. Watch all three below:
Wed 12 October – Camberley International Festival, Cardiff, LIVE STREAM (Facebook Details)
Fri 14 October – Spillers Records, Cardiff
Sat 22 October – Cardiff Contemporary 2016, Cardiff
Sun 23 October – Sŵn Festival 2016, Cardiff
Fri 11 November – St John the Evangelist Church, Canton, Cardiff