Carreg Lafar ‘s second album, Hyn, combines great vocals and tasteful arrangements of Welsh traditional music, along with some nice originals, in a mix that seems slightly medieval and mysterious, while at the same time anchored with contemporary folk sensibilities. Wales is known for lovely scenery and a brooding, dour religiosity that has produced some of the world’s best choral music. While Carreg Lafar has lovely vocal arrangements, led by Linda Owen Jones on lead vocals, there is nothing dour about this music, which is haunting, lovely and oriented towards the beauty of nature and the vagaries of love.
Owen Jones is often joined by her partner Antwn Owen Hicks on vocals, and he also plays the Welsh hornpipes and bagpipes, bodhran, whistle and percussion. They are joined by Rhian Evan Jones on fiddle, viola, cello and vocals, James Rourke on flutes and whistles, and Simon O’Shea on guitars, mandola and vocals. Carreg Lafar came together in the early 1990s around a love of traditional music, and a desire to put the Welsh branch of Celtic music on the map. The band seem to have multiple creative projects, including solo albums, acting careers, and even a recent novel, as well as playing together in this project.
The album is sung entirely in Welsh, although English descriptions of the songs are given along with the Welsh on the liner notes. The liner notes are beautifully designed, with great graphics, and photography, although, unfortunately no lyrics or details on the arrangements and instruments used in the various songs. They contain a poem by Euros Bowen (1904-1988) that provides the album’s title, which translates as “this.” It is an ode to the mindfulness in nature reminiscent of St. Patrick’s lorica, or the boast of Amairgen.
Hyn begins with a rousing traditional number called “Yr Hen Ferchetan/Ffair Bala” (The Spinster/Bala Fair) about an old maid who finally finds love. The guitar and bodhran set the basic rhythm, with the flute carrying the melody, and occasional tambourine flourishes that create the sense of the medieval. The second number is a tender lament about a young girl who sends her young sailor back to the sea, knowing it is her first love, with Owen Jones’ voice accompanied with restraint by the fiddle, guitar and flute. Next up is a song about cows that are bewitched by eating the grass growing by the river Dyfi, that introduces the pipes, which are used for both an anchoring drone and melody, “Blewyn Glas” (Fresh Grass).
Lisa Lân (Fair Lisa) is a lament for a dead lover, with the cello and pipes creating a drone that anchors Owen Jones’s vocals, creating a brooding sense of the surviving lover’s despair, that segues into a bleak instrumental finish effectively maintaining the tension in the vocals. Owen Jones’ has a lovely middle range voice with lots of dark tone that is well suited to this number. Next, Owen Hicks takes over lead vocals on “Cariad Cywir,” (True Love), initially accompanied by the flute, that builds to a rousing finish. An instrumental featuring O’Shea’s flute, follows — again showing how Carreg Lafar is able to use darker toned instruments to create a flowing, mysterious sound.
“Mari Llwd” is definitely the standout number on this disc for me. It is a powerful, almost trance inducing call and response choral number, sung in parts using the bass and tenor lines to effectively anchor the women’s parts. The song is about a decorated mare’s skull that was traditionally used on New Year’s Eve by groups of singers as a mascot while they competed for entry and free drinks in the pub. I am particularly fond of great choral numbers, partly because they are rare in contemporary traditional music, and this number shows Carreg Lafar’s range and talent in vocals. It is also effectively placed in the album, sandwiched between spare instrumental numbers, followed by “Llef Harlech/Aberdulais” (Harlech’s Cry) written in honor of places on the West coast of Wales.
“Aberhonddu” finds Owen Hicks on vocals, in a soldier’s song about departing Wales for war overseas. Owen Hicks has a nice tenor voice that effectively conveys emotion without being sappy, and that really blends well with Owen Jones on vocals. The final set is a pair of stirring songs about a poor, but beautiful girl passed over by a gentlemen because she lacks a dowry, although she points out that she did not ask him to marry her. This energetic song recalls the energy and rhythm of the opening number, creating an upbeat finish to the album.
Hyn is very well done, and should appeal to fans of traditional Celtic music with an eye for tasteful arrangements and appreciation of superior vocals. The band know how to let Owen Jones’ voice take center stage, yet also create memorable instrumentals. Listeners new to Welsh music, will will find less syncopation than Irish or Scots music, with rhythms reminiscent of the Breton. Although this may be due to Carreg Lafar’s arrangements, I liked the use of the drone without the harshness of the bombard, the judicious use of call and response structures. The frequent use of an anchoring drone contributes to the medieval feel, as does the upright beat, yet the vocal styles and arrangements are also very consistent with other contemporary Celtic styles. This is traditional music, rather than a folk rock adaptation, creating a sense of energy and urgency without having to resort to a heavy bass and drum kit, with slower more introspective numbers mixed in to keep things interesting. Carreg Lafar make their talent and sophistication very evident on this disc, which was recorded two years ago, but just released to the North American market, raising the obvious question: How long must we wait for the next one?