Experimental electronic

Hen Ogledd ‘Free Humans’

“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’.

Girl Pusher ‘911’

Blood, sweat, and clown grease paint frequently mulch Gabby Giuliano’s grimacing face towards the end of their punishing sets. Offering violence as catharsis, Girl Pusher provides sanctuary from a world growing uglier day by day, holding the agents of misogyny and prejudice to bloody account amid split lips, static screams, and digital venom.

Hollywood cyber punk duo continue their electronic cacophony via DEFACE records with 911, six corrosive tracks of fuzzing assaults that disorientate as much as excite. Opener ‘Where the Fuck is My Ambulance’ creeps in with 911 sirens over audio from the ‘Marcy tapes’ (previously sampled by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult and The Orb) detailing a runaway hippie’s want for platonic love, before burbling guttural synths and pummeling beats leave you picking your teeth from the floor. A lyrical diatribe of ‘long snakes in tall grass’, less written and more spewed up like bile, raw and abrasive condemnations of indignity at the hands of male entitlement. ‘Reformed Hellraiser’ is a haunting trip into masochism, Jarrod Hine’s drums spasm and stutter against Giuliano’s glitched, whispered confessions of self-perpetuating pain. Pulsing bass synths throb aggressively on ‘Red Was the Color of the Candle’ an acidic paean to utilising one’s burning anger for empowerment, ‘Gentle Marcy’ returning halfway through creating a vulnerable interplay with the intimidating rage. Things speed up on ‘Runaway’, an EBM punk thrasher showcasing Hine’s drumming prowess, before the abrasive ‘Did U Think of Me Last Night’ oozes in with analogue toxicity, a visceral slop of dissonant percussion and bowel churning aural hellscapes. You can scarcely believe that only ten minutes have passed by when finale ‘Out of Breath’ hits you, a fizzing, boiling, stream of consciousness attacking the ‘fucking creatures’ that prey on insecurities, Giuliano ending with the sentiment ‘You deserve starvation, overdose, and best of all, DEATH!!!’

We’re all wounded and scarred by a hostile society, seemingly set to implode before it affords us a modicum of compassion or acceptance. In a messy, divided world, Girl Pusher have created an EP which has exorcised the trauma of Trump’s America, reaches a hand out and offers solidarity, validating your anger and confusion. 911 is a visceral, primal confrontation of a sick society, brutal yet liberating.