Toby Hay – The Gathering
Cambrian Records – 29 March 2017
The video for Toby Hay’s Mayfair At Rhayader 1927 is doubly strange. It is comprised of archive footage of a large group of people gathering to attend a Welsh May Day celebration. Many have dressed up for the occasion – it was a time when ‘putting on your Sunday best’ still had some meaning. Some play football. Others horse around in train stations. At the beginning of the video a steam train is shown, its carriages packed to bursting with the May Day revellers. It is strange because of what it shows us, the twenty-first-century viewer, about a way of life that no longer exists. There is something odd in the apparent need for a mass pilgrimage to what is effectively a pagan rite.
And then there is the second layer of uncanniness, and it begins with that steam train. These aren’t your stereotypically naive country folk, afraid of technology. They are people who have experienced that latter stages of the industrial revolution, who have seen the scientific and technological advances partly brought about by the Great War, the bloodshed certainly still fresh in the minds of many of them. The video is a testament to the enduring power of some of these old rituals, how even in the face of rampant progress they continue to be observed and enjoyed. Because the video is also about the human power of enjoyment, of communal celebration for celebration’s sake. And it is the story of two seemingly incompatible ages colliding and coexisting, at least for a while.
It is a lesson we could do with listening to as we reach the end of our own era or rather our own epoch. Nature writer Robert MacFarlane, who co-wrote the liner notes for Toby Hay’s new record, The Gathering, has written extensively about the onset of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch set to supersede the Holocene. Some scientists propose that the Anthropocene has already begun. Either way, we are entering a period of the Earth’s history in which the entire planet-system has been changed, on a geological and ecological level, by human actions. And this change, like all changes throughout human history, is beginning to be reflected in art. That is not to say that all art must strive to engage explicitly with the human impact on the world, but that art which explores landscapes and histories may not be able to avoid such an engagement.
It also implies a political element. In MacFarlane’s introduction to The Gathering, he mentions Trump and Brexit, a tide of political and ecological darkness. And he mentions that art in general – and in this particular case, Toby Hay’s music – has a definite role to play in holding back that dark tide. It is appropriate then that Hay’s music is full of light. The Gathering’s opening track – the aforementioned Mayfair At Rhayader 1927 – is a glimmering, pellucid acoustic guitar instrumental backed with sinuous strings. It sets the stall out perfectly for the rest of the album. A Thief’s Tale – representative of the world as seen through the eyes of a temporarily escaped sheep – is a deceptively gentle series of switchbacks: a lithe, folksy guitar part trading places with country-tinged fiddles. The Fly Fisherman And The Trout tells a more ambivalent tale, the ludic guitar conjuring up the memory of a dream whose meaning could be one of thwarted ambition or lifelong contentment.
Sketches Of A Roman Fort divides naturally into three distinct parts, the first and last inspired by the song of the skylark. Wordlessly, brilliantly, it describes how tranquillity can be upset by the tumult of human activity, and how just as quickly it can be regained. It is at moments like these – and the album has a good number of them – that it becomes apparent that Hay belongs to the lineage of great guitarists (Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and more recently William Tyler) who can create the most lyrical of art without recourse to verbal language. This is backed up by Claerwen, which somehow manages to be at once brooding and bright, a mesmerising reflection of the Welsh landscape that inspired it, a place both wild and completely changed by human intervention. On Starlings the wildness is of an altogether more elated kind: Hay summons an imaginary murmuration from his guitar, a flock of ideas that soars on contours of violin.
Hay’s musical style is in some ways similar to Fahey’s, a deft mixture of quick fingers and drawn-out notes. But it feels in some way demeaning to talk of style when the substance of these tracks is so essential. Black Brook creates a tiny world of its own, timeless and watery. It is a place of enchantment, but a very real one. The eight-minute title track, which closes the album, unfolds with the inevitability of a weather system filling a valley. It is, amongst other things, a meditation on the wholly Welsh idea of hiraeth: that not-quite-definable mixture of homesickness, melancholy, fierce belonging. And even in this apparently abstract notion, there is an element of the political. As the poet R.S. Thomas said, ‘to live in Wales is to be conscious at dusk of the spilled blood that went into the making of the wild sky’. Hay’s music brims with that consciousness. It is so completely in tune with the place of its creation that the two – location and art – are practically inseparable. Yet for all that it is oddly, almost uncannily universal, filled with familiar emotions presented in wholly new ways.
When I first sat down to listen to The Gathering, the rain was threatening to turn to hail. March, with a few days left to turn from lion to proverbial lamb, wasn’t playing ball. By the time the album was finished, the sun was out. I opened the kitchen window. The wind had died down enough for three or four long-tailed tits to loiter in the hazel at the bottom of the garden. Two adipose woodpigeons nestled and flirted on a roof. There was an alien noise: a pair of military Chinook helicopters throbbed overhead and were gone. Our world is changing; it always will. And our art is changing too. Artistic statements like The Gathering, for all their rootedness in the landscapes of the past, are symptoms of this change, and they are also its catalysts. Hay’s album is a stunning turning point in what we have come to call folk music. A beautiful, frank and mysterious statement.
The Gathering is out today via Cambrian Records