It’s a tricky thing, judging the solo work of an artist who has had such huge success at the head of a band. Should their albums be considered solely within the context of their solo endeavours or do they have to stand in the spotlight alongside the collective behemoths that preceded them? It’s even trickier in the case of Gruff Rhys, given the idiosyncratic furrow that he and Super Furry Animals have ploughed across the last three decades. After all, so unmistakable is the SFA sound and Rhys’s input into it that a simple chord or two of any track he has been involved in flags up the fact that the listener is firmly in Gruff-land.
It is almost oxymoronic just how brilliantly unique and yet instantly recognisable his work has been and Seeking New Gods, his seventh solo outing, is no different. Who else, after all, could take an active volcano on the border between China and North Korea as the starting point for an album and end up delivering something as warmly familiar and reassuringly accessible? It is an album brimming with delights: ‘Holiest of the Holy Men’ is Rhys’s distinctive brand of expansive prog-lounge psychedelia at its most indulgent finest; ‘Can’t Carry On’ and ‘The Keep’ are a pair of pure pop pearls; and the closing ‘Distant Snowy Peaks’ is a shimmering, ethereal and superbly restrained beauty of a finale – and yet, one listen to the album also confirms that it has to be taken in the context of all Rhys’s work, not just the recent solo excursions.
The amiable plink-plonk mid-tempo toe-tap of ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ has a distinct air of ‘Golden Retriever’, ‘Everlasting Joy’ has an epic reach that echoes ‘Run, Christian, Run’ and ‘Hiking In Lightning’ is a more leisurely romp through the same terrain as ‘The International Language of Screaming’ – all of which is not to say this is a collection that is phoned in. It’s more that so inescapable is the sound that Rhys creates that everything he touches turns to Super Furries-tinged gold and makes you think that, despite the band being on a now firmly-set and open-ended hiatus, we’re not missing out on their glories one bit.