Calan – Solomon
Sain Records – 2017
Having no understanding of Gaelic itself rarely deters me from reviewing an album of Gaelic song, the language of music itself is universal. The same approach could be applied to almost any language, so when I was asked to review Solomon, the fifth album from Welsh group Calan, I was undaunted. As soon as the music started I was enthralled.
Since their 2008 debut, Bling, Calan have been delivering a blend of traditional and original songs and tune sets that range from foot-stomping to soulful, feature astounding musicianship, a love of Welsh language and folklore, and shed-loads of originality and flair. The five-piece band feature fiddles, guitar, harp and pipes to bring Welsh traditional music and song to new, ever-growing audiences all over the UK, Europe and in North America.
Opening the album with Kân, that combination of Welsh-language, originality and contemporary twists storms from the speakers in a chant that pays tribute to a Welsh tradition of Psalm chanting and moves on with drones and beats to a bi-lingual conversation on the future of Welsh language and culture. Behind the spicy vocal lurk soft harps and a strong, no-holds-barred message before the mesmerising voice of fiddle player Angharad Jenkins‘ late father, poet Nigel Jenkins, reads an extract of his piece The Creation.
The founding core of Calan are the powerhouse trio of Bethan Rhiannon (main vocals, accordion, step dancing, percussion), Patrick Rimes (fiddle, Welsh bagpipes, pibgorn, whistle, hulusi, vocals), and Angharad Jenkins (fiddle, vocals). That rich sound, full of voices, strings and reeds is further enhanced by Sam Humphreys (guitar, percussion, effects, vocals), and Alice French (harp, vocals). Together they move on from the attention-grabbing introduction to an album that not only offers the most energetic of dance sets but also flows effortlessly into full-on Celtic Folk-Rock and can wind down just as effectively with soothing instrumentals, dark tales and enchanting traditional song.
Just how wide and expertly delivered that range is becomes clear when you compare the excitement and energy of Kân with the hauntingly beautiful Welsh love song Pe Cawn i Hon (If She Was Mine). The restraint of Sam Humphrey’s electric guitar as the sole accompaniment to Bethan’s hypnotic Welsh vocal speaks just as effectively about their love for, and understanding of, traditional music as the toe-tapping multi-textured wonders that set their audiences alight. Those same audiences would be equally charmed by the gentle beauty of Yr Hwaingerddi, where soft harp and guitar provide the setting for three traditional lullabies. Following the opening Y Lili Ymysg y Drain, Si Hei Lwli and Mil Harddach present a beguiling transition from male to female vocal.
It was no surprise to learn that, in addition to the storming opening, Calan are masterful when it comes to writing their own tradition-inspired songs. Apparition was a song of the day on Folk Radio Uk last month and takes the diaries of Welsh clergyman Edward Jones as inspiration for a song in English about the demise of the fairy-folk, following the onset of metal-working. There’s nothing gossamer-winged, though, about the driving beat, drama and layers of vocal in this enthralling reflection of 1980’s folk-rock, with plenty to stir the soul in that beat and the emphatic harp. There’s more evidence that Calan are perfectly happy to bring the past with them on their journey into the future with a rendition of the traditional Yr Eneth Gadd Ei Gwrthod. A sad, dark, tale of an outcast unmarried mother that references Pentangle’s spell-binding vocal arrangements.
Dance sets are where all the fun is, though, and there’s no shortage of that on Solomon. There’s a harp and guitar lead trad opening for Ryan Jigs, a set where a brace of fiddles dance around each other like birds on the wing. The set was compiled in celebration of the impressive performance by the Welsh national side in the 2016 European Championships – which would explain the pun in the title. Dennis, Polca! takes that energy a step further and bookends Bethan’s Anastacia Riddles with two traditional dances in a storming set that features gorgeous cascading melodies and seems to confirm the Celtic links between Wales and Galicia, yet still has room for some warm brass among all the excitement. The brass comes courtesy of the additional talent of Greg Sterland (saxophone), Josh Barber (trumpet), and Lloyd Pierce (trombone).
In #deportation selfie, inspired by an ill-fated visit to the U.S. (read the story here), fiddle and harp dance around gentle harmonics, an irresistible dance with deft stops and more joy in its soul than most, with its Balkan accent and subtle jazz conversations. The energy on this album just keeps flowing, it’s no wonder Calan are famed for the enthusiasm of their live audiences. The driving guitar beat and vocals of Synnwyr Solomon burst into a lively chorus of all souls to celebrate the indomitable spirit of Welsh womankind.
Hayes & Quinn’s offers the chance to take a breather as guitar, fiddles and harp embark on a journey across a sun-sparkled sea. Amid soaring fiddle harmonies there’s a brief, bracing wind before the harp sets a new course – picking up pipes along the way for an uplifting full-company crescendo. Harp, bass and drum beats combine to celebrate Madame Fromage, in a tribute to Patrick’s Mother – Carrie Rimes of the Cosyn Cymru creamery. Cheesy this most certainly is not, though, as fiddle takes the lead from the harp towards lovely jazz flavours and a gently poppy backbeat.
The closing track, Big D opens with an astounding clog-dance from Bethan before diving headlong into a set of reels and hornpipes that showcase Calan’s sheer mastery of high-energy dance sets. Totally invigorating.
Solomon is an amazing album. At its core there’s a warm, rich sound; so heavily populated it can be a task to pick out the different components. Picking out those components is a thoroughly rewarding task though, and one music fans will happily return to again and again. Even more impressive, however, is the perfectly unified sound – how easy it is to rise above those individual performances and lose yourself in the whole, glorious event. Calan are an exciting, confident and highly accomplished band, I’m sorry to have missed the Scottish date of their current tour, it would have been an incredible experience. Don’t miss out, catch them live on this tour, and make sure you buy a copy of this album from them while you’re there – you won’t regret it. Solomon sounds wonderful, fresh and exciting from the very first listen and continues to enthral on every subsequent visit.
Solomon is out now on Sain Records: http://www.sainwales.com
CALAN SOLOMON UK TOUR DATES
25-Apr NORWICH, Arts Centre
27-Apr BASTON, Barn
28-Apr BANGOR, Pontio
29-Apr SETTLE, Victoria Hall
30-Apr GATESHEAD, Sage
02-May GLASGOW, Cottiers Theatre
03-May YORK, National Centre for Early Music
04-May SHEFFIELD, Greystones
05-May OTLEY, Courthouse
06-May BURY, Met
07-May LIVERPOOL, Philharmonic Hall Music Room
09-May WAVENDON, Stables 2
10-May LONDON, Kings Place
12-May IVYBRIDGE, Watermark
13-May BRIDPORT, Arts Centre
14-May HORSHAM, Capitol Theatre
16-May BRISTOL, Colston Hall Lantern
18-May SWANSEA, Canolfan Celfyddydau Taliesin Arts Centre
19-May BRECON, Theatr Brycheiniog
20-May CARDIGAN, Theatr Mwldan
25-May FAREHAM, Ashcroft Arts Centre
29-May Chippenham Folk Festival
30 Jun – 2 July DENMARK Skagen Festival
05-Jul HENLEY Festival
13-16 Jul Borneo Rainforest Festival
21-Jul Dolgellau Sesiwn Fawr Dolgellau
11-Sep – Oct 8 USA and Canada