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20YAT #17 Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – Barafundle

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UK album chart peak: #46

While English pop was re-examining its national identity with particularly celebrated fervour in the mid-90s, something similar was happening west of Offa’s Dyke, albeit with a markedly different approach. The outcome was not music about modern life in Wales in the same way that, say, Blur wrote about package holidays or Pulp about raves in a field in Hampshire, but instead something more ethereally Welsh that dealt in mischievous small-town whimsy, a charmingly defiant sense of independence in the face of overbearing neighbours, rich melody and, of course, the Welsh language.

Barafundle was one of the purest distillations of this particular spirit: where other Welsh bands around the same time (Catatonia; Manic Street Preachers) only dabbled with their heritage, Gorky’s – matched perhaps only by Super Furry Animals in terms of national pride – doubled down on it. Sometimes that sense of all-in remains a touch overbearing – The Wizard & The Lizard still oversteps eccentricity to become simply annoying, and the album’s final two tracks add nothing more than a sense that the magically hypnotic Dark Night should’ve been its swansong – but over the album’s course these are forgivable blips.

Indeed, far more frequently the band’s belief in their own idiosyncrasies is a virtue: mid-song gearshifts, increasing in severity from tempo (Meiron Wyllt) to playing style (Pen Gwag Glas) and even to entire language (Patio Song), pepper Barafundle like gleeful expressions of an overexcitable mind, leaving the record beaming with a sort of madcap delight. Their decidedly quirky approach to instrumentation helps too: Diamond Dew’s bizarro orchestration and infectious Kinksian chorus make for an intoxicating combination that seems to defy explanation, consequently rendering itself as sort of magical. Such is the attendant magic, in fact, that even periodic appearances of honking medieval instruments – usually a synonym for self-conscious zaniness – carry a minor charm here.

It all leaves Barafundle as a pungent, offbeat record that’s humorous but, crucially, never comedic. Indeed, there’s a seam of earnestness running through the album that rather deftly excuses its most stoned moments, making it at first resilient in the face of repeated listens, and then actually rather welcoming. It remains gentle, warm, utterly unconcerned with approval but never alienating and, perhaps most winningly, irrepressibly Welsh.

And one advantage of this type of national portrait-painting is that it ages surprisingly well: twenty years on, Barafundle’s peculiar Welshness means that, in contrast to some of its English counterparts whose references to fashion and social mores peg them to their era, it still maintains an oddball freshness. That timelessness can come at a cost – Barafundle will never have the historic heft of something like Different Class (not that, one assumes, Gorky’s were ever desirous of that) – but that seems a small price to pay for this level of quietly bewitching charisma. 


Also out this week:

The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole (Virgin). Chart peak #1
Bis – New Transistor Heroes (Wiiija). Chart peak #55