October sees the return of acclaimed Cardiff singer-songwriter and folk musician Gareth Bonello, also known as The Gentle Good. A collaborator of a great many beloved artists, including Cate Le Bon, Richard James (Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) and Welsh Music Prize winner Georgia Ruth, Bonello’s fourth album Ruins/Adfeilion is one that’s title alone serves best to reflect the disparate themes within. Although not represented by a single concept, the songs have common themes of history, identity and social commentary. The title refers to a realisation that there is no true freedom to make the world as we would choose, but instead have to live amongst the ruins of previous generations. Some of these ruins are beautiful links to our past, providing a sense of place and cultural identity for instance, whilst others are dangerous obstacles that hinder our progress.
As the follow-up to 2013’s Y Bardd Anfarwol (The Immortal Bard) – an ambitious intercontinental project during which Bonello travelled to Chengdu, China, to create a project combining both Welsh and Chinese traditions - Ruins/Adfeilion looks much closer to home, but with no lesser global outlook. Gwen Lliw’r Lili (Gwen colour of the Lilly) is a fitting album opener - being a traditional Welsh folk song from the Maria Jane Williams Collection, Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morgannwg (1844) – and an outward statement on the influence that the continuing influence of Welsh folk music on his writing. The guitar instrumental Un i Sain Ffagan (One for Saint Fagans), for instance, is Bonello’s own ode to his former place of employment, Saint Fagans Natural History Museum, and the spot where he himself first discovered traditional Welsh music.
Many of the songs featured here pay tribute to the past whilst others address, in very direct terms, contemporary issues.
Rivers of Gold is a plaintive and simple protest song tackling the subject of trickledown economics, written in response to rising wealth inequality and the fact that it is the poor that have had to bear the brunt of austerity. Here Bonello channels Guthrie, Dylan – complete with harmonica solo – and there’s a touch of Stuart Murdoch in the lilting refrain “Rivers of gold / What a sight to behold / They’re the rivers that never will run.” In turn, Bound For Lampedusa tells the story of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to the Libyan coast, noted for its acceptance of thousands of African refugees, fleeing conflict and poverty. The song was penned in despair at the lack of an appropriate response from both the UK and the EU to the refugee crisis, with the scale of some of the journeys taken perhaps reflected by the song’s near 7-minute length, as Bonello explains; “Thousands have lost their lives and many more continue to risk everything to make the crossing in search of a better life in Europe. The song is told from the perspective of a group of refugees drifting in the Mediterranean, wondering what their fate will be. Seb Goldfinch wrote the string and brass accompaniment so beautifully performed by the Mavron Quartet, and Jack and Callum provided the rhythm section. Profit from this track will be donated to Oasis Cardiff, a centre that provides much needed social services to refugees and asylum seekers in the city.”
Elsewhere, Suffer The Small Birds (a deliberate misquote from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus) makes the political point of not ignoring the little voice. “The eagle suffers the little birds to sing and is not careful what they mean thereby, knowing that with the shadow of his wings, he can at pleasure stint their melody.” Winston Churchill is said to have used the quote after World War II, his attitude being that they needn’t listen to the concerns of the smaller nations, ultimately sowing the seeds for future conflict in the region.
Tradition is then turned on its head for Pen draw’r Byd (The Far Side of The World), a song Bonello describes as his “feminist zombie folk song”, saying; “This is a song about a young girl awaiting the return of her sailor boy. These tragic females commonly appear in Welsh folk song and their role is almost always to wander some bleak shoreline and helplessly yearn for the return of their lost love, who usually never comes back. I wanted to turn the tradition around and so in this song the young lady curses the sea and wishes it be left to the lonesome cries of the seagulls. In the last verse she tells herself that even if her young love should return from the dead complete with a crown of sand and seaweed in his hair she would still beg the moon to drag the sea and everything in it to the far side of the world.”
Album closer Merch y Morfa (Estuary Girl) makes up the album’s sombre lament for his late grandmother, featuring a field recording of a Curlew’s fittingly mournful cry. Ruins/Adfeilion is The Gentle Good’s message to world in 2016; a biting commentary, a dance with the past, a scorning of the present, and a new perspective on the traditional.
Fiona Bassett (French Horn), Gareth Bonello (Lead Vocal, Guitars, Piano, Harmonium, Harmonica), Callum Duggan (Double Bass), Jack Egglestone (Drums & Percussion), Dylan Fowler (Mandocello & Lap Steel), Ceri Jones (Trombone), Georgia Ruth Williams (Harp & vocals), Tomos Williams (Trumpet)
Strings performed by The Mavron Quartet
Christiana Mavron (First Violin), Katy Rowe (Second Violin), Niamh Ferris (Viola), Beatrice Newman (Cello)
Recorded at Stiwdio Felin fach, Y Fenni/Abergavenny / Produced by Llion Robertson / Arrangements for strings and brass by Seb Goldfinch