Gwilym Bowen Rhys : Detholiad o Hen Faledi I (A Selection of Old Welsh Ballads)

Gwilym Bowen Rhys has had a hand in some of the most exciting Welsh folk and acoustic music of the last few years, including the award winning Bendith collaboration and Plu, an alt. folk trio completed by his two sisters. He released his first solo album, O Groth y Ddaear, in 2016 and now has recorded a second for a new label, Recordiau Erwydd, an offshoot of Sbrigyn Ymborth.

Whilst the production on Bendith's LP and EP is lush and layered, the new album, Detholiad o Hen Faledi / A Selection of Old Welsh Ballads, is a pared-back-to-essentials release. The most unadorned album you are likely to buy this year, it is literally just voice and (sometimes) guitar, mainly first takes, recorded over a three hour session at Studio Sain - including a lunch break, which probably wasn't rushed.

With one microphone the allure, immediacy and spirit of his live performance has been brilliantly trapped - wherever its alchemy comes from, Detholiad o Hen Faledi I captures Gwilym Bowen Rhys in full folk flight. Producer Aled Wyn Hughes has done an exemplary job.

Gwilym found this set of old ballads by researching at the National Library of Wales' archives; he has a fine ability to match (Welsh) words and music. If you want to appreciate the potency of Welsh traditional music, there is no skirting round the language - it is the root of most of the ballads in this collection, naturally - as when they were written it was simply what the people spoke.

There are nine tracks recorded here - two highlights would serve to illustrate a creatively very even set. First Galargan Dŵr Tryweryn is a lively song, a fusion of found lyrics and a traditional melody - the title translates as Lament for Tryweryn's Water and is ostensibly about a failed Bala whisky venture, but I can't help feel those headline four words would have had a different connotation for Bessie Braddock; either way it is full of expressive energy.

In contrast the comedic tone of an a capella rendition of what was originally an American song, Taith y Cardi, gives an English speaker's ear the chance to appreciate the fine detail of the singer's way with a story.

If you need further musical persuasion beyond those two excerpts - then Yr Eneth Gadd ei Gwrthod (The Rejected Maiden) offers it conclusively - a beautiful, sensitive unaccompanied version of a song about the shaming and death of a young woman pregnant after rape. It demonstrates that if you know the subject of song but not the language in which it is sung, it can still be a profound, specific and moving experience.

With that value of framing in mind - the CD comes with a very well put together set of notes with source information and an explanation of each song's narrative, more than worth the additional price of the physical version over the download.

It is tempting, when looking to define Gwilym Bowen Rhys for an audience outside of Wales, to look across the Irish Sea for a comparator. My persistent nagging thought though is that it is with the North East of England's late, great Vin Garbutt where closest similarity can be found - as Rhys has an unerring dramatic ability to inhabit a folk song, the charisma to animate a room and a character that seems hewn from the rock of where he is from - the triptych of attributes that would portray the essence of Garbutt.

Anyone who saw Vin Garbutt in a folk club or on a festival stage will know he is some standard to reach for - yet as rare as true folk-genius is, there is the stirring of it in Gwilym Bowen Rhys, and this new album is never less than convincing evidence of that. Last year we said 'If you run a festival put him on your stage, if you run a folk club book him, and if you have just a few pounds of change in your pocket pay to see him play'. You can now add to that, just buy this CD.


GWILYM BOWEN RHYS I Detholiad o Hen Faledi I