Monday, July 21, 2014

Trwbador Strike Back

Trwbador - Several Wolves cover

When I reviewed Trwbador as part of last year's Welsh Music Prize extravaganza, I noted that it seemed like something of an hors d'oeuvre, a tantalising warm-up for what I predicted would be a truly satisfying second course. Here's what I wrote:
"I feel like this is a kind of primordial release for Trwbador, and what really interests me is what they might do with album number two. Having set out their slightly avant-garde take on Orange advert music here, they'll either use that sound as a springboard for weightier, more fully-realised songwriting...or they'll take an even sharper left turn and get down to some serious studio tinkering. Either way, I reckon it'll be excellent."
- Joel Dear, 11 October 2013

It feels like I wrote that paragraph only last week, but the bottom-right corner of my laptop screen informs me that a full nine months have passed since the eleventh of October. That's enough time to conceive and birth an entire child, and yet I can scarcely believe that the second Trwbador album - an album, remember, that I imagined as a full-blown magnum opus - is already sitting in my iTunes, waiting patiently for the click of my mouse.

Well, that's enough patter - it's high time I gave Several Wolves a listen. Will it be an elegantly-crafted masterpiece? An experimental roller coaster? Or just a disappointment? Let's find out...

1. Side by Side
Several Wolves commences - much as its predecessor did - with a pleasantly plump beat. Side by Side isn't quite the instant facemelter that Carpet Burns was, but it's a strong start with a hypnotic hook ("never look back, never look back"). The sudden change of pace at around 1min30 suggests that this album will be erring towards the "studio tinkering" approach that I mentioned in October. Early doors yet, mind.

2. Start Your Car
This song is an '80s pastiche that's halfway between Lady Gaga and Au Revoir Simone. The synthesisers are thickly-layered, and Angharad Van Rijswijk (gosh, I've been looking forward to typing that surname again) sings with an icy-cold detachment that reminds me of Neon Neon's more deadpan moments, like I Lust U and Shopping (I Like To). Very cool indeed.

3. Breakthrough
To my mind, Trwbador's 'sound' is characterised by three things: cut-up beats, sirenic female vocals, and Owain Gwilym's precisely-plucked guitar. Breakthrough plays with that formula - Angharad is largely absent until the final moments, and the beats flit in and out as if they're not quite sure whether they're in this one. The guitar is the main driving force, although it seems to transmogrify into a harp at some point in the thick of things. Oh, and there's a rap, which seems like a big step towards diversifying their sound until you remember that the last album had  a rap as well.

4. Pictures
There's a lot of chopping and changing in this one. It seems to exist primarily as an excuse for Van Rijswijk to fiddle around with her vocal tracks. That's good, though - this is the kind of playful sonic experimentation that I was hoping for from this album. Pictures feels like a more complex, highly-evolved descendant of Red Handkerchiefs from the previous LP.

5. Come to Me, Tomorrow
This one starts out with a charming, childlike melody ("come to me to-to-morrow-morrow") before proceeding to throw all kinds of weird crap at that melody to see if it can survive until the end of the song. It does, just about - no matter how many gear changes Trwabdor clunk through, they always make it back to that central refrain - but the real fun of Come to Me, Tomorrow lies with the duo's kitchen sink approach to its instrumentation. My favourite part is the brilliantly cheesy Frusciantean guitar solo that materialises about two-thirds of the way in.

6. Co2
You don't even need to hear this song to know that it's the centrepiece of the entire record - if you're listening to the album on a computer (as I am), you'll instantly spot that Co2 is seven minutes and twenty seconds long.

iTunes should come with some kind of spoiler alert.

That's significantly more than anything else on Several Wolves, and a solid three minutes longer than Mountain, the longest track on Trwbador. But does the song earn this length?'s hard to say. The first half of the track is consumed by strange droning sounds and background noise - it's like an updated version of Monolith by The Beta Band, and that song fucking terrifies me.

But then, after about three minutes and thirty seconds of this, Co2 suddenly becomes something completely different: a bizarre yet bouncy raveup that's characterised by an alien-sounding vocal filter and a (sorry, I'm saying it) PHAT bassline. It's such a completely unexpected turn of events, and it's absolutely BRILLIANT.

I was ready to apologise for this track. Those first few minutes weren't much fun to sit through, but I can hardly hate on Angharad and Owain for experimenting - heck, that's exactly what I said they ought to do when I wrote about their first album.

But that abrupt musical plot twist was more than even I could have hoped for. Hats off.

7. Blue Minds
As a song, this one is a little more straightforward than what we've been hearing so far. It's sung in chorus, giving it an old-timey folklore kind of feel (a massive contrast to the latter half of Co2), and while their signature beats are still present and correct, they're less prominent than on other tracks, meaning that Blue Minds has a sort of experimental edge rather than a completely barmy core.

8. Longing
More awesome '80s synthesisers. This one feels like the sister song of track two, giving us another generous helping of artificial melodies and restrained, Praxis Makes Perfect-style vocal delivery. You may remember that Neon Neon's album was one of my favourites from the WMP 2013 shortlist, so it's great to see Trwbador taking a leaf from that playbook.

9. Several Wolves
I don't know if there have been or will be any singles released from Several Wolves, but the title track feels like it would be a good choice - it's catchy, it's infectious, and it builds to a nice conclusion, merely hinting at the craziness to be found elsewhere on this album. This will be the one that Adam Walton plays on his radio show, I suspect.

10. Love and Folly
A gentle ending, built upon daydreamy "la-la-la" vocals and a laid-back guitar part. There's also a fun (but not intrusive) 8-bit section in the middle, so that's cool. Very few of the songs on Several Wolves feel like they would have sat well on the self-titled album, but this is one exception - it has a far purer reserve of that innocent, tuneful simplicity that Several Wolves has spent most of its runtime bastardising and tooling around with.

* * *

Now, I'm very fond of the first Trwbador album - I still listen to it on a semi-regular basis - but it gives me great happiness to see how their music has changed since then. Gone are the pointless instrumental tracks that plagued the last record's sense of pacing; Van Rijswijk and Gwilym are now putting their musical muscles to work, instead of merely flexing them for our entertainment.

Several Wolves is simultaneously more experimental and more fully-realised than its predecessor, which is great because it actually fulfils both sides of my prophecy. Woo!

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