Barely 15 months ago I reviewed Llongau, the latest offering from Welsh outfit Ffynnon, whose atmospheric and nicely challenging approach to Welsh folk music centres around the vocal and songwriting talents of Lynne Denman and the multi-instrumental skills of Stacey Blythe. But for much of the past five years, Stacey’s been “multitasking” in parallel, in that she’s been working with charismatic fiddle player Helina Rees (leading light of the fluid Mozart-to-Metallica ensemble The Cambria String Quartet) to create a new slant on Welsh folk by reimagining the tradition, in a fabulous musical collaboration that since 2013 has come to fullest fruition with the “fundament” provided by the serendipitous discovery and recruitment of double bass player Jordan Price Williams to make the trio Elfen.
The Welsh word Elfen means “element”, and the band’s website directly and aptly links that concept to the seamless blending of the three musical talents/elements. There is indeed a fantastic musical (I might say even spiritual) togetherness at work here, which is apparent right from the intense beauty of the delicately poised opening instrumental Adar Mân y Mynydd (Small Birds Of The Mountain), which combines two lovely slow tunes, moving unhurriedly from just lyrical fiddle (Helina) with tenderly supportive harp arpeggios (Stacey) to a warmer and more luxurious palette embracing low and high whistles (Jordan), at length segueing via a lively ostinato figure straight into Bwlch Llanberis, a vibrant musical celebration of the joy of nature’s renewal with a skipping irregular time-signature to keep us on our toes and a catchy, slightly bluegrassy feel to the central hook propelled by Jordan’s lithe bass. The adept interweaving of compatible instrumental parts (fiddle, accordion and double bass) is quite miraculous, and furnishes the most exhilarating of backdrops for Stacey’s lovingly contoured, expressive vocal (surprisingly, the life-affirming traditional words are less often sung than the tune itself is played, I’m told). The energy doesn’t let up with the next track, a medley comprising a sprightly tune of suspected Macedonian origin and some (probably equally fiendishly metred, and distinctly slippery) “jigs with extra legs” composed by Helina. This track kicks off with Stacey’s nifty accordion before giving way to the wiry abandon of the fiddle and some particularly inventive bass syncopations, with Stacey bringing some delicious half-scat, half-lilt vocalising to the final tune of the set.
The gentle playfulness of a different kind marks the next track, Chwarae, an enchanting singsong seesaw snapshot of children’s imaginary games (a setting of a Waldo Williams poem) characterised by simple harp and pizzicato fiddle. Following this, the child’s innocence grows into first love, ever hopeful if blind, as depicted on Seren Syw (which finds traditional words put to a new tune with some lovely harmonies along the way). The ultra-energetic À La Court could be seen as the disc’s centrepiece; it’s a kind of bizarre and more than slightly illogical fairytale capped by a vigorous dance of Breton origin, introduced by a coolly yearning, yet attention-grabbing double bass solo that, while suitably controlled, nevertheless reflects Jordan’s generous, larger-than-life personality which makes him such a major player in the trio sound and overall dynamic. On this track, we also especially notice Stacey and Helina’s togetherness and responsive, delightfully playful shadings as they spin the Breton dance around with barely concealed abandon. Stacey’s singing on this track (in French) is rather enticing: precisely enunciated and full of presence and joy. Her vocal expertise attains another aspect of crooning sensuousness on Aderyn Du (Blackbird), seeming to infuse the enigmatic, pithy Welsh lyric with something of the spirit of fado, accentuated by her vamping accordion weaving through the texture.
The album’s title song, Blue Stallion, is both joyous and proud, its delicate bluegrassy-jazz flavoured vocal counterpointed by cheeky pizzicato fiddle before the fuller ensemble gallops into the fray. There’s a complete change of pace and texture for Wals Maria, a limpid solo harp piece with deft but solid contours that’s just perfect. Penultimate song America is a genuine transatlantic-crossing, with a wonderfully full-toned instrumental backing and an irresistible bustling gait (although it’s impossible not to notice the close resemblance of the melody to Lakes Of Pontchartrain, which the Welsh words just happen to fit like a glove!); here we find Stacey expanding the original text with a final verse of unbridled optimism and defiance. The disc’s finale is a spiritful medley of three tunes (two Welsh ones bookending an original by Jordan), which confidently builds from a mellow (and purposefully hesitant) Morgawr to a more animated Y Fasged Wyau which places all the Elfen eggs into the basket (but then again, un œuf’s as good as a feast!) for its final flourish. With its keen balancing and weaving of parts, it’s a cracking set of tunes that brings to the forefront Elfen’s stylishness in crafting instrumental pieces while maintaining an enviable sense of momentum that remains unflustered; replete with delicious twists and turns and links, these tunes feel they’re probably as much fun to experience as a listener as to play as a musician. Having said that, the abrupt end to the set feels almost peremptory – but maybe this is a calculated move to inspire the listener to play the album over again, da capo!
March Glas is a great debut album for Elfen, not least in being well representative not only of the special interpersonal “connection” that clearly exists between the band members but also of the trio’s high degree of instrumental and vocal inventiveness, which is utilised to present a thoughtful yet brilliantly vibrant soundscape that reveals added nuances on each playthrough. There’s a pervasive sense of joie-de-vivre, a delicious spring to the step and an immediacy of presence. All of this is truthfully captured in “as-live” interaction by Dylan Fowler’s production expertise in this excellent, state-of-the-art-and-beyond recording. Congratulations all round!
March Glas is pot now and available via Bandcamp