ALAW: Dead Man’s Dance (Dawns y Gŵr Marw)
Easy on the Record – 6 October 2017
The three members of ALAW share one, consuming, passion – the traditional music of Wales. Whether that music is a long-lost melody, a well-loved traditional tune, or one of the many carefully crafted original songs, the trio of Oliver Wilson-Dickson, Jamie Smith and Dylan Fowler bring peerless sincerity and craft to their work. ALAW’s 2013 debut CD, Melody (Alaw is the Welsh translation of melody) was as refreshing as it was infectious; a predominantly instrumental collection of traditional Welsh melodies. In the hands of these three gifted musicians, though, those melodies were often presented in an entirely new light. With the release of their second CD, Dead Man’s Dance (Dawns y Gŵr Marw), ALAW extend their exploration of the Welsh tradition to include original song, and guests vocalists, in another collection of captivating performances.
To open the album, Dylan’s own Dawns Soïg is paired with the trad melody that gives the album its title, Dawns y Gŵr Marw. Jamie’s accordion and Oliver’s fiddle lead the way in a lively dance with a hint of mystery; a rich, bass-laden sound with Dylan’s guitar adding little flashes of light. Dylan wrote this up-tempo dance for his friend, Breton guitarist Soïg Sibéril. Dawns y Gŵr Marw adds even more tempo and a refreshing hint of tribal rhythm in the guitar. The whole track is somewhat epic, hypnotic even, with Latin heat, building tension and provides the opening with no shortage of excitement.
ALAW’s origins go back to 2012, when Dylan and Oliver recorded an E.P. together, titled Alaw, at the beautiful setting of Dylan’s Taith Records Studio in Abergavenny, Stiwdio Felin Fach, for their visit to the Festival Interceltique de Lorient. Soon after, accordionist Jamie Smith joined in, and the trio ALAW were born.
ALAW have taken a major step forward on Dead Man’s Dance by including three original songs, all in English and all written by Oliver. Stones is a fine example of Oliver’s creative song-writing, deftly turning the ‘sticks and stones’ platitude on its head in a poetic appeal for tolerance. Joined by Aberystwyth singer-songwriter and harpist Georgia Ruth, the song brings out the very best in both vocalists.
A member of The Devil’s Violin Company and Jamie Smith’s Mabon, Oliver Wilson-Dickson is a gifted and expressive fiddler, composer and song writer. His When It’s Gone closes the album on a light note; a fine, light, vocal duet with Jamie. In a song that encourages us to live for the moment, the excitement of the extended closing sequence offers up a fascinating contrast, with Gillian Stevens‘ cello and Dylan’s electric guitar flying free above the song. The fascinatingly uncomplicated arrangement for Seven Stories takes the melody around in a thought-provoking circle, perhaps mirroring the song’s discussion on the re-working of traditional forms.
Traditional Welsh song seems to have a voice all of its own, though. On Dead Man’s Dance that voice comes from Gwilym Bowen Rhys (Y Bandana), who seems to relish the chance to explore traditions from both sides of Offa’s Dyke for a fiery, spirited Welsh translation of J Glyn Davies’ sea shanty Santiana. Antwn Owen Hicks of Cardiff tradition-bearers Carreg Lafar stokes the fire with a mesmerising bagpipe. Lisa Lân is perhaps one of the best-known songs in the Welsh tradition. The warm, sleepy viola from Oliver perfectly complements Gwilym’s rich voice in a love song that’s thoroughly captivating all the way to its ghostly conclusion. On Y G’lomen the opening solo vocal from Georgia gives her beautifully clear and expressive voice all the space it needs before Dylan’s rhythms and Oliver’s accompaniment add some gentle colour. Hen Erddigan Morganwg is a haunting vocal harmony duet from Oliver and Georgia, the song is preceded in a set Pam Yr Oedi?, where gentle guitar rhythms nurture the delightful interplay between accordion and fiddle.
As many readers will know, that interplay between Jamie Smith‘s accordion and Oliver’s fiddle is no new phenomenon. Jamie Smith’s pan-Celtic style has been a feature of his music since before Mabon originally formed in 1999. Oliver and his fiddle have been an integral part of the band’s journey, and their near-telepathic musical understanding makes for some absolutely enthralling music. The final member of this incredibly talented trio is guitarist, composer, producer Dylan Fowler. Dylan’s compelling guitar playing has been a feature of numerous projects, not least his own utterly bewitching solo album, A Passionate Landscape (reviewed here) and his cross-cultural work with fellow fingerstyle guitarists Soïg Sibéril and Ian Melrose in Celtic Guitar Journeys. As proprietor of Taith Records Dylan has hosted a wealth of fascinating musical projects.
For Dylan’s own composition, Iâr Fach Yr Haf, it’s that breathtakingly beautiful guitar, with a soft melody and rich bass notes, that captures the senses. As fiddle takes up the melody alongside guitar, it becomes something you long to find a lyric for. As guitar, fiddle and accordion each take their individual, and collective turns at the melody, there’s an infectious sense of serenity; as if the trio could happily go on exploring the melody’s possibilities ad infinitum. Gorgeous.
Pan O’wn Y Gwanwyn offers the chance to inject some more pace. The evocative and beautiful trad melody is full of growing light and the warmth of a beating heart. The heartbeat quickens, in time; grows in strength, fills with vitality and bursts forth in an exciting crescendo. That vitality is matched in The Niffy Maggot / Johnny’s Welcome Home, as Oliver sets a demanding pace for his own jig right from the start. His mates are well up to the challenge of course, and the result is a fiery conclusion for this brace of tunes; bringing to the studio the emphatic excitement of the trio’s live sets.
With Dead Man’s Dance (Dawns y Gŵr Marw) ALAW have not only created an impressive follow up to their 2013 debut, they’ve surpassed the brilliance of Melody with an even more invigorating, wider-ranging exploration of Welsh poetic and musical traditions. Placing those traditions in such a perfectly balanced and beautifully executed contemporary setting, and adopting a more expansive bi-lingual approach (exemplified in the packaging’s informative layout), has shown that ALAW can expand on those traditions with craft and sincerity. Dead Man’s Dance (Dawns y Gŵr Marw) is an inspired and unique album.
ALAW will perform as part of OffWOMEX in Poland this year and look forward to album launch concerts with guests on the 29th and 30th November. See live dates below:
29th November, Norwegian Church Arts Centre, Cardiff
30th November, The Chapel, Abergavenny
1st December, Postlip Hall, Winchcombe, Cheltenham
2nd December, Chapel Arts, Chapel-en-le-Frith Town Hall
3rd December, Florence Nightingale Memorial Hall, Holloway