Neither one gains, nor loses
For an artist to have unfaltering faith in their cultural relevance, no matter how far away it is from what the rest of the world sees, is a brilliant thing. Gruff Rhys, and subsequently his new album, Pang!, is the embodiment of this. The album is an unusual yet beautiful mix of global influences all falling mercy to the intimacy and spirit with which Rhys expresses his thoughts.
The essence of Pang! is the cultural backbone it stands upon. The entire record is sung in Rhys’ Welsh mother-tongue and hangs largely on the music and feelings of that place. However, the identity of this record does not end in Wales. Produced by South African artist Muzi, much of Pang! is equally vitalized by the languages, the sounds and the instrumentation of South Africa. Muzi’s role was far from passive post-production, so much so that this record is more the result of a collaboration between the two musicians, and the sharing of their stories.
The double act is felt strongly. On one side, the folk-like melodies are rich and clean, clearly a homage to Welsh music tradition. On the other side, there is a kind of township rhythm to the record, something that comes straight out of South Africa. The Mbira-like groove that sequences in with Rhys’ hometown guitar refrains is a distinctive blend. These two places are so clearly visible through the music, yet still, the record remains unrestrained by any kind of stylistic dependency. The instrumentation, the composition, everything about these places, is continually renewed through their very combination. The choral harmonies and ethereal synth overlays, though rooted in Welsh soil, remain fresh thanks to Muzi’s electronic processing and Rhys’ wildly creative writing, and the lyrical barriers that come with singing in a language most listeners wouldn’t understand, are overcome by the clever integration of the vocals. They become abstract as if they were another instrument. For those that do understand, the significance is superior, and so neither one gains, nor loses.
The title track is a pastoral sketch, in the highlands and in the rain. The loose guitar plucking, the stunted drumming and the rising brass section are an intricate composition bringing out the best in each other. They dance until the chorus, after which they conform to let Rhys’ gentle vocal layering be heard.
“Bae Bae Bae” opens with a melody typical of West African Kora music, only to break down into a kind of subdued, harmonic Kwaito. Muzi’s “mzanzi-music” response to Rhys’ acoustic tone is inspired and inspiring.
“Digidigol” and “Ara Deg” are steadier refrains, once again giving rise to jazzy brass sections and township dance rhythms. They both stand as a testament to the transience of Rhys’ lyrics, and the dynamic that his voice contains.
“Eli Haul” is Rhys at his most intimate point on the record. The chirping of birds, the jumping marimba pulses and the natural strumming are the standpoints from which Rhys can deliver his warm yet haunting words – an indulgent moment for the artist.
The final track, “Annedd I’m Dahedd,” feels like an anthem in away. It’s triumphant, with its ceremonial drumming and royal brass. Rhys is proclaiming his culture, for himself, and for all Welsh listeners. Yet simultaneously, he is reaching out beyond the limits of what he knows and understands, as a means of encouraging others to accept the same.
At the end of this global experience, some listeners may be craving familiarity, something more traditional, others may be craving something more progressive, even more barrier-breaking. No work of art is ever complete, and someone will always be missing something, but is that not the very essence of this record? To address what’s missing, to normalize our cravings, to satisfy our curiosity. The listener who is left wanting less is in need of more. The one with a craving for home is also the one that needs to leave home. We are by definition the product of our desires and the remnants of our fears. Music is too, and Pang! is a lesson in this. A lesson in moderation and co-operation. Neither one gains, nor loses.