“Good evening, radio audience…” spoke the world’s first voice synthesizer. Pioneered by acoustics engineer Homer Dudley, the primitive artificial speech machine wowed the crowd at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, despite its cumbersome operation and often unintelligible sentences. For all its technological marvel, the ‘Voder’ was meticulously controlled behind the scenes by Helen Harper, needing to press an array of keys and pedals to create the desired vocals. Every great leap forward in scientific progress, like the Sputnik 1 or the birth of cinema, that truly captures the imagination and points to exciting possibilities are always endeavours that tap into a certain magic, the ‘sense of wonder’ found in any great piece of science-fiction.
Dudley’s famous electronic speech also opens ‘Remains’, the sixth track from Hen Ogledd‘s latest album Free Humans. A quaint celebration of the human voice and its many harmonic components leading to a stirring climax attesting to the eternal ripples of vibration from every word ever uttered. This mesh of scientific rigour and curious alchemy was well evident sonically and thematically in 2018’s Mogic, an intriguing portmanteau of ‘magic’ and ‘logic’. Initially conceived by Geordie folk artist Richard Dawson and Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies as a more free-form outfit, the addition of members Sally Pilkington and Dawn Bothwell yielded a more focused approach to their avant-garde, retaining the amorphous electronic experimentation but injected with expert pop hooks. Mogic‘s balance of the ‘technical and mystical’ and its imbued fascination with the arcane British Isles (Hen Ogledd meaning ‘Old North’ in Welsh) serves as an appetiser for Free Humans, an album which is nearly double in length than its predecessor and affords the band a greater scope with which to explore a wider breadth of sounds, styles and ideas.
The evocative power of sci-fi at its best weaves in and out of Free Humans, but especially shines on the radiant ‘Crimson Star’, detailing a voyage around the mysterious carbon star that glows red in the Lepus constellation. Davies’s sublime harp plucking glimmers over strident keyboards that all coalesce together joyously, Dawson’s falsetto depictions of eternal sunsets and translucent flowers reminiscent of Roy Batty’s recounting of glittering C-beams and attack ships on fire from Blade Runner. Subtle detours into dystopia bring warnings such as ‘Space Golf’, a cautionary anticipation of the greed and wealth disparity that plagues Earth being brought along our space travels to blight the next planet, countering the bleak observation of flawed humanity with a piece of absurdist truth: no matter your wealth and power, the rich boys can’t play golf in space.
Celery bites, crisp packets, and gargled ‘cooncil juice’ (that’s Scottish slang for tap water didnae ye ken?) are all legitimate instruments in the band’s pursuit of strange textures and skewed composition. The sinister turn of ‘Paul is 9ft Tall (Marsh Gas)’ features thrillingly spooky vocals from Bothwell, witchy vocals whispered with malevolent relish hiss amid a bubbling cauldron of disorientating synths and cavernous post-punk bass. Songs like ‘Earworm’ and ‘Bwganod’ (Welsh for scarecrow) are almost stream-of-conscious lyrical rantings, the former a volatile slurry of nuclear anxiety and choking earth urgency with the thoroughly unambiguous ‘tick-tocking’ of impending doom while the latter is an art-club dance banger from hell cursing the algorithm invasions of the Spotify world. The eccentricity reaches its apex on the bizarre cover of ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, originally from Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, the frenetic percussion and warped vocals breathe strange new life to the piece, Bothwell singing lines like “Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok” with gusto.
The band know when to throw in a perfect pop song to counter the weird. The lead single ‘Trouble’ is a gorgeously infectious and catchy number with irresistibly groovy bass and shimmering lead synth, the whole song glows with life and threatens to be one of the ‘earworms’ so fretted over in the namesake track. ‘Time Party’ struts along with swaggering pomp, Dawson contributing some fantastic Eurodance style interjections, and the ostensibly meandering ‘Feral’ hides a hypnotic beat underneath its subterranean stomp. Their self-described ‘wonky pop’ bob up and down throughout the record, shining a moment of unifying pop even at their most idiosyncratic.
The ‘mogic’ of their last record has been expanded and mutated in a gloriously beguiling and strange album, a kaleidoscopic trip that twists and turns through pop accessibility and uncharted sonic territory. Showing how full of ideas Hen Ogledd still is, Free Humans is a fascinating and utterly unique piece of work which points to the stars and triggers our deepest ‘sense of wonder’.