Gruff Rhys (from the album Seeking New Gods available on Rough Trade Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
Into his sixth decade now, equal parts genial and talented, Gruff Rhys continues to pour love, joy, and no small amount of ingenuity into his creative projects. For those who aren't aware, Rhys rose to fame during the 1990s with Welsh group Super Furry Animals, whose eclectic, highly individualistic and adventurous Rock-Pop albums earned a cult following and critical admiration. The Furry's never sacrificed art for commerciality, producing a slew of eccentric, accessible records which mixed electronic sounds and catchy melodies complete with Rock aesthetics, psychedelic overtones, and ambitious concepts. As a solo artist, Gruff Rhys has continued in the same vein, injecting his distinctive brand of whimsy and invention into film scores, filmmaking, books, prizewinning albums, and even the soundtrack for a video game.
It should come as no surprise, given Gruff Rhys' off-kilter sensibilities and voracious appetite for quirky stories, that his latest solo effort, Seeking New Gods, is a concept album about Mount Paektu, a mountain on the China/North Korea border. Mount Paektu's geographical origins are somewhat mysterious and contentious, its climate erratic and prone to severity. Revered in North Korea as the birthplace of Korea's founder Dangun, and, unsurprisingly, Kim Jong-Il myths of the mountain's geomantic power are embedded in culture and history. Rhys' vision kicks of with “Mausoleum of My Former Self”, a softly-rolling, jaunty number, full of spacey synth swoops, kicking drums, and tinkling melodies. Fans of Gruff Rhys' music will be familiar with the magic formula – highly accessible Pop production married to sweet psychedelia, wrapped up in some ridiculously catchy compositions. In short, it's a sugar-rush with real depth.
Lyrically, Gruff Rhys is as mercurial and interesting as ever. “Loan Your Loneliness” rocks and bounces, with singing guitars and pounding piano. ‘Your silicon strategies in free fall, your helicam flutters in high frequency. The power-cut undercuts your free flow, there's nobody left to casually guide your hand’. His gift for effortlessly weaving arresting sounds into uniquely Rhys-ian song structures is at its best here; sonically dense palettes which are nevertheless agile and protean. The slow-tempo title track treads reverently and magically. Fluttering shards of luminosity picked out by piano skip and accentuate, stately drums thump, and swells of guitar rise and fall. In Gruff Rhys' hands, even laidback slabs of sound dance as lightly and energetic as fairies.
“Holiest Of the Holy Men” rides a buzzing synth line over vamping keys, slowing into a free glide, ramping back up to a skip. Hazy blue skies and high suns, glowing grass and smiling, waving reptiles, all would find a place in Rhys' spellbinding, day-glo musical world. “The Keep” bustles and bumps with old-school Beatle's charm. The quality of Gruff Rhys' songwriting lies at the core of everything that works here, a fine, sturdy, and fascinating frame around which to drape his multi-coloured sonic imaginations. Wild saxophones scream and dance round the edges, the perfect marriage between accessibility and experimentation. “Everlasting Joy” strides and struts but never aggressively. Humanity and warmth suffuse this set. Production-wise, it's a beguiling mix of expansive 60s psychedelia, adventurous 70s prog, and tomorrow's electro-acoustic hinterland.
This is what happens when you try and convey the sound of Seeking New Gods – you are forced to dig deep, throw away a portion of logic, and fill that space with free-flowing, free-form associations. It is as high a credit to Gruff Rhys as I could pay, and this album deserves every penny. (by Chris Wheatley)
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