Hen Ogledd

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’.

Heads on Sticks end of decade 2010’s playlist!!

”And some people say it’s just rock and roll,

Oh but it gets you right down to your soul

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, ‘Push the Sky Away’, 2013

Music has been my greatest companion. My favourtite drug, a rubber ring in emergency, a tool for surgical introspection. Anyone who loves their music will often struggle to summarise their decade without listing a string of albums or gigs before detailing actual events. The cathartic properties of music are forever intertwined with the narrative of our lives, from our deepest most private battles to the socio-political turmoil stared down by the nation. What this decade means to me is overwhelmingly represented in just 100 songs.

I entered the 2010’s in a fog of uncertainty, as did the country. The financial crisis seemed to coarsen people, the New Labour consensus lay dying, and an emerging appetite for punitive politics reared its head. For many young people, the student protests of 2010 were the seeds of their political awakening. Having had to endure the gleeful relish at further debt for simply wanting an education from pissheads at a bar I worked part-time at, I was well aware that my Media Practice and Film-Making degree would gather scant respect in a new climate of bitter division, and was sure that economic precarity was to follow due to the recession at the time of my graduation.

Right toward the end of my studies, I got hit by the ‘lightning bolt’. One of the greatest experiences is the hit of a fantastic tune when you discover an artist so brilliant it terrifies you that life could have carried on without their songs in your system. As a deep admirer of the original wave of synth artists (Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, early Human League etc.) I was dissatisfied with the way the synthesizer was being used as a mere indie-toy as opposed to the mysterious beast it was capable of. Stumbling around on YouTube late at night I was exposed to a song called ‘Vigils‘ by Xeno & Oaklander and it was exactly what I wanted to hear. Deep, cold, and analogue, it seized me with its glacial grip and before the song had finished I knew I had heard one of the best electronic acts there had ever been. They opened a door to a plethora of related acts I was totally oblivious to (Sixth June, Daybed, Automelodi) in addition to Veronica Vasicka’s excellent minimal-synth archival project/label Minimal Wave.

The dull, grey thud of intermittent unemployment and bullshit jobs plagued me and many of my friends from the summer of 2011. Despite the camaraderie which comes with living in a house full of struggling artists on the dole and not knowing what the fuck they were doing, anger and disillusionment were never too far from the skint revelry. Cccandy and Youth Code were on repeat during this period, perfectly matching the corrosive effects of austerity breakdown with their volatile and abrasive synth-punk pummel. When we finally got our shit together around 2013 and found some stability and money in our pockets the pop around us seemed brighter and effervescent. ‘s ‘Pilgrim’ and Arcade Fire‘s ‘Reflektor’ were my ‘songs of the summer’, whenever I hear them now I’m taken over with a sense of sunny renewal.

Each year brought more and more fantastic music, and little did I know that I was living in the city which was at the forefront of the ‘new’. Wych Elm, New Haunts, Avon Terror Corps, E B U, Orryx all knocked me sideways and enthused me so much that I finally plucked the courage to start Heads on Sticks. Any resulting success I’ve had I owe to the mosaic of artists, labels, promoters, and radio stations that make up the Bristol music monster invigorating me to want to get stuck in.

There’s an ocean of songs to sift through but I’ve settled for 100, ten per year. 100 good friends that have seen me through the tribulations of the tumultuous decade. No hierarchy, no objective ‘best of’, just simply the story of my 2010’s, and pretty much my twenties.

I approach the 2020’s with uncertainty once again. The devastating defeat of what felt like a once in a lifetime chance of national healing has left me fearing for the future of our country. I take great comfort in knowing that I enter the new decade in a total golden age of challenging, unique, exquisite and fiercely creative music and performing art.

Thanks for the music,

Tom (a fan)

1020 Radio Spotify Playlist

Bristol’s 1020 Radio kindly let me curate the fourth entry in their residents Spotify playlist series!

There’s no theme, no agenda, just 25 tracks that were in my gut at the moment of collation. Old loves, new hits, and artists covered in recent HoS posts, ranging from femme punk, goth-pop, Kubrick soundtracks, and Germanic EBM!

Sink yer teeth in! 👌