Hippies never die
Hen Ogledd is a band out of time. Named for the “Old North,” the region between Southern Scotland and Northern England, the Celtic quartet produces experimental folk of the most eccentric variety. On Free Humans, Hen Ogledd is as ambitiously, delightfully weird as ever, exploring uncharted territories with nothing but a glockenspiel and a dream.
It’s impossible to describe Hen Ogledd’s distinct brand of psychoactive transcendentalism without listening to their music. Free Humans is as free-spirited and eclectic as it gets, featuring a vast, genre-defying variety of instrumentation–ranging from the aforementioned glockenspiel to saxophones, acoustic guitars, pipe organs, synths, drum machines, gongs, celery crunches and everything in between. To boot, every member of Hen Ogledd is a lead singer. According to the band, inspiration for Free Humans’ uniquely wonky blend of folk, alternative, pop and jazz was derived in equal parts from the work of 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen, ethical philosopher Mary Midgley, ABBA and Werner Herzog’s documentaries.
Hen Ogledd consists of multi-instrumentalists Dawn Bothwell, Rhodri Davies, Sally Pilkington, and Richard Dawson. Dawson’s latest solo album, 2020, was released in October of last year.
The band’s own verbiage sums up Free Humans succinctly: “It’s an album of seamless, glorious contradictions. Tackling themes of love, friendship, Gaia theory, sewers, the nature of time, human stench, and the thrills of wild swimming, it’s remarkable that… [everything] somehow coheres into a marvelous whole.”
Free Humans leads with intention. Dryly named opening track “Farewell” is a sprawling, upbeat alt-folk introduction to Hen Ogledd’s avid environmentalism. Filled with evolving harmonies, contemplative lyrics and forest-infused mysticism reminiscent of The Lorax, “Farewell” establishes Hen Ogledd as a band that cares about the trees. This theme grows and changes across the album, often touching on humanity’s relationships with nature, space, time and itself.
On “Crimson Star” and “Space Golf,” Hen Ogledd gets nebulous. While “Crimson Star” is an interstellar journey heightened by a rousing beat and ethereal harp, “Space Golf” is confidently retrofuturistic. The latter is particularly political, identifying a certain US president as a climate change culprit: “You took so much more than you need/ but you cannot play golf in space.”
Somehow, Free Humans only gets trippier from here on out. “Time Party” is a funky anti-capitalist trance that urges listeners to “Free your mind/ Time to remember your dreams.” It’s brazenly wacky, yet strangely magnetic. Similarly, “Paul is 9ft Tall (Marsh Gas)” is a dark, avant-garde love song with aggressive, raw vocals: the perfect soundtrack for a deconstructionist noir thriller. “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song” is a fever dream of sounds and ideas, with strange, near indecipherable lyrics shouted above an up-tempo beat and increasingly discordant synths. For some listeners, “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song” will be pure nightmare fuel. For others, it’ll be an unexpectedly exciting voyage through an unpredictable dreamscape.
Now, it’s important for listeners to be aware of just how long Free Humans is. Most of Hen Ogledd’s newest batch of songs are between four and six minutes, lending the 14-track album surprising heft. Compared to the album’s closers, however, that isn’t much–tracks “Feral” and “Skinny Dippers” are over 16 minutes in combined length. “Feral,” a nine-minute acid trip in which Hen Ogledd sings of “pre-Cambrian dreams,” contemplatively addresses the transience of time, life, humanity and nature. The song directly references Karl Marx, applying his famous quote “all that is solid melts into air” to the Earth’s downward environmental spiral and humanity’s starkly negative impact. “Skinny Dippers” continues on the same path, picking up the pace while adding cheerful funk vibes and edgy guitar riffs. To get the overall gist, simply imagine taking one tab of acid too many and bingeing all the Ice Age movies in one sitting.
Though Hen Ogledd’s distinct brand of trippy, hallucinogenic folk-pop certainly isn’t for everyone, the band’s latest release undoubtedly warrants a listen. Between its unorthodox instrumentation, multifaceted harmonies, thought-provoking lyrics and genre-bending charm, Free Humans will appeal to the staunchest capitalists and Marxists alike.