Album Review: Hen Ogledd – Free Humans

Once again they come from the north-Hen Ogledd, time travelling space pop troubadours with music of weird and wonky magic. Originally the brainchild of folk experimentalist/indie anti-hero Richard Dawson and avant harpist Rhodri Davies, the addition of Dawn Bothwell in 2016 and then Sally Pilkington has sparked the collective to channel their inner wonk and find more focus in their otherworld. 2018’s ‘Mogic’ saw the unscrambling begin and now their new album ‘Free Humans’ keeps up the momentum with a set of gloriously beat filled, inspired songs.

The quirkily titled ‘Farewell’ launches the record with some booming tub thumps. A rolling ballad that merges Dawson’s earthy vocal with an instant chorus hook that glitz period Human League would be proud of, ‘Farewell’ builds and swirls impressively until the band trudge over the horizon. It’s like they have put the album’s intended closer as the first track deliberately, compelling you to carry on listening to find out how they got to this final frame…welcome to the world of Hen Ogledd.

As you begin to explore ‘Free Humans’ further you soon realise that there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s a long record, 4 sides or 75+ mins depending on your format, but with songs that delve into Gaia theory, ghosts, the plight of cruise ship entertainers, radio technology, sewage problems, outdoor swimming, love, loss, friendship and the shape of things to come, there’s plenty to keep you interested. On top of the head spinning story- telling, Hen Ogledd’s joyous re-imagining of eighties electro pop, eased through numerous nu-folk, krautrock, and free jazz filters, raises ‘Free Humans’ way above most other indie releases this year.

Listening to tracks like the bouncing bass and synth chops of ‘Trouble’ (surely destined to have been 2020’s festival hit if the summer had ever happened) or the sumptuous melodies of Eurovision re-invented in ‘Crimson Star’, is bound to lift the spirits. But as much as ‘Free Humans’ is music for wide smiles and shameless grins there’s also plenty of agitation and protest – catch ‘Time Party’ de-constructing everything to a woozy disco funk or the monstrous environmental stomp that is ‘Bwganod’ and you’ll get the message. Less Zealous but all the more powerful for it, ‘Space Golf’ takes a masterful swing at the Trumps over a pumping electro garage pulse, slogans sung in solidarity and defiant warnings that ‘you cannae play golf in space’.

Elsewhere Hen Ogledd reach back to their experimental roots without losing their way. ‘Kebran Gospel Gossip’ trips along menacingly to some twinkling Tomita-like phrases as a Dark Ages chant builds and battles with a free sax skronk out. That processional vibe gets a retake on ‘Paul is 9ft Tall (Marsh Gas)’ all ceremonial synth trumpets, reptilian voice treatments and a lurching rhythm as stealthy as early Slits. With even more invention and surprise to be found on the techno inflected ‘The Loch Ness Monster Song’ and the bass synth burner ‘Earworm’ it could all get too much but the band also know exactly when to pull back. ‘Flickering lights’ is necessarily stripped down with Dawson’s tender voice capturing loss with a
n aching honesty. ‘After the end of the end of time I will be yours…’ he sings.

The closing tracks of ‘Free Humans’ are unhurried, letting you ease yourself away. The atmospheric ‘Feral’ brings an emphasis on sound with a hypnotic bassline and the melodic wash as deep as the best Boards of Canada. It disappears whistling. Then finally ‘Skinny Dippers’ reconnects the post punk jerk with a classic pop chorus before its lush wind down leaves a single strong voice recalling the joys of very simple things.

And that’s ‘Free Humans’, just like the best banter a surreal rollercoaster of ‘what ifs’ and ‘imagine that’s’. It’s a record that just falls into place: the punch lines come on time; the vocal chemistry is so natural, so refreshingly free of rock twang; and each carefully fumbled solo carries the authentic stamp of true pop perfection. Some will want to seek explanations if there are such things, others will want to just get lost in Hen Ogledd’s inexplicably wonderful world. With ‘Free Humans’, Hen Ogledd are reaching out to you and me.

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