Rejoice! Hen Ogledd are back with the accidentally ironically titled album ‘Free Humans’. Having wowed all that saw them live in support of their 2018 third album ‘Mogic’, we’ve been eagerly awaiting their return.
For the uninitiated: each member hailing from different tribal regions of The Old North forms the basis of the band’s name. The Old North, in Welsh translates to Yr Hen Ogledd.
The supergroup, featuring virtuosos Richard Dawson, Rhodri Davies, Dawn Bothwell and Sally Pilkington, is an exciting prospect that belies the folkish roots of its members. For the most part it remains more focussed on electronics than straight traditional acoustic instruments.
Of course, when he sings, Richard Dawson’s voice is unmistakeable. However, he often refrains from absolutely dominating the sound with the violent growls and extreme descents into off-key notes that make him so compelling to listen to solo. You do wonder if, in part some of Dawson’s 2020 album was actually informed by his work with Hen Ogledd. Particularly, the vocoder and gooey electronics of ‘Fulfilment Centre’.
Anyway, Hen Ogledd is not all about one person.
This new collection, as with all their previous work is very much the product of a collective vision.
The Bandcamp page for this release lists a huge array of bizarre ‘instruments’ and pedals. Among others “gargling cooncil Juice”, “Carrot and Celery Bites”, “Aqueduct” and “Randy’s Revenge”.
These no doubt contribute to the garbled sounds that accompany their often slick beats and basslines.
Farewell opens with a punchy beat and two note bassline, noodly guitar and icy synths before Dawson’s glorious voice kicks in. The chorus, (we think) sung by Bothwell and Pilkington appears to suggest this is a loving farewell, perhaps, to the EU. It sets up some of the bleak lyrical ideas that follow over the 14 tracks that imagine a devastating future.
The ode to Dawson and Pilkington’s cat Trouble is a gorgeous indie synth pop song. It’s a more successful version of what Belle And Sebastian were attempting with ‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance‘. That album just didn’t work for us. The beautiful chorus melody is backed with short sharp chants of the title. It also features, at the end, what appears to be a flanged harp solo. A perfect pop song.
Earworm is more percussive in its approach. The bassline is spiky, the drum beats itchy and the vocals robotic in parts. The sax skronk and multi layered spoken word vocal segment take us to another plain. It’s funky music from another planet.
Of course there is some room made for more traditional sounds.
The space age Crimson Star is backed by lush harp flourishes, to accompany the disco beats. A robotic half time section drifts away into the ether as Dawson hits full falsetto. It tunes in to a similar sense of abandonment to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity‘.
Hen Ogledd embrace sparse, looping hooks and droney keys on ‘Kebran Gospel Gossip‘. It’s both folky and industrial sounding whilst also incorporating free jazz sax. Rhodri Davies takes the lead on “Remains” which has a great walking bassline and lyrics full of nerdy tech references. It’s like Ivor Cutler channelled through the body of John Cale.
It’s Bothwell’s turn on the creepy Paul is 9ft Tall (Marsh Gas). Her Scottish accent playfully curls around the cultish chant of “Marsh Gas”. Musically it shares a lot with The Knife. The synths wobble over a minimal yet tribalistic beat and atmospheric clangs of percussion.
They take a lyrical dig at elitism on Space Golf. It seems most likely aimed at Donald Trump. The character they bemoan having ruined the planet and stoked up hate, flees to another planet with the rest of the elite:
“Building your walls to keep them out… you built your ship and up you flew… but you cannot play golf in space”.
Time Party is the quirkiest track on ‘Free Humans’ up to this point. It’s another call to reject capitalism. It comes across like a Mighty Boosh funk song with free sax honks. Like Funkadelic meets James Chance. “The economy is SHRINKING” yelps Pilkington. Given this is literally what is happening now to potentially devastating effect, this is scarily accurate. The chorus lyrics are a little bit throwaway, but who cares when everything else about it is so much fun.
Following the kooky Time Party Hen Ogledd sound like they’ve had a moment of utter madness. The Loch Ness Monster’s Song is all glitchy, crazed instrumentation and utter nonsense lyrics. It builds towards a warped, melted ending that sounds like the record has just turned to liquid.
It’s kind of glorious in its absurdity.
They contrast this silliness with the aching ballad Flickering Lights. From the chord pattern of the church organ intro you instantly know this is going to be a Richard Dawson led song. It’s pretty minimal. Just the organ, bass and percussion backing Dawson for the most part. It sticks out like a sore thumb but we’re glad it’s here.
Bothwell sounds fed up of the modern world on Bwganod as she lists a series of unpleasantries. Dawson supplies the catchy chorus before we’re treated to more of that now familiar vocoder. More clanging noises and peculiar dynamics to accompany the disco beat. Despite the negativity it’s good fun.
The band embrace their inner Depeche Mode with the 80s beats and flubby bass of Feral. Creepy backing vocals sing the album title as the song becomes increasingly meditative and psychedelic.
It seemingly ends before reprising the chorus of Space Golf.
There is, of course, time for one more blast of handclap laden synth pop in the form of Skinny Dippers. Singing of delighting in swimming in the wild while it takes a wonky and slightly discordant detour at the halfway point. This develops into a proggy and dreamy feel before slowly winding down to just Pilkington’s vocal and increasingly sparse instrumentation.
The sound of waves closes the album out, lapping at our feet while we take in this monumental record.
‘Free Humans’ is certainly a progression from ‘Mogic’. Hen Ogledd have crafted a more cohesive pop album, although it still retains the experimental roots of their early work. None of the songs quite has the same punch as ‘Mogic’’s ‘Problem Child‘ but the album as a whole is more expansive and retains a stronger flow.
It’s long at 79 minutes, but there’s so much creativity packed in it would be difficult to pinpoint anything that needs to be removed.
There are songs you could argue don’t completely fit, like the bizarre The Loch Ness Monster’s Song or the lovely Flickering Lights. Without such tracks, though, it might all feel a little too samey. Given it’s a double album a vinyl listen presents the opportunity to experience it in manageable chunks.
With ‘Free Humans‘ Hen Ogledd have created a new sound world you can truly enjoy getting lost in. Each member perfectly compliments and tempers the others, while they have retained the hallmarks that made them stand out. You can’t go wrong with this.
You may enjoy this if you like: Richard Dawson, Rhodri Davies, The Knife