Gwenno – Tresor: Album Review

Gwenno releases Tresor; aural Celtic treasure from Cornwall kickstarting further the linguistic renaissance of the South West.

Release Date: 1st July 2022

Label: Heavenly

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

Famous more for protecting endangered languages than possibly for her actual music, is this the one to drag her out of that particular shadow into a wider exposure?

With her debut in Welsh and her second in Cornish, this follows that move, being largely also in Cornish, Kernewek, to be more correct, with a bit of Welsh thrown in for good measure. Presumably to pick up the Welsh popular vote, I jest, as wiki is telling me there are getting on for a million fluent users of Welsh, worldwide. Cornish? Well, only about two thousand, but actually now growing, courtesy Ms. Saunders, the daughter of a Cornish poet and a Welsh translator.

In the same way as Scottish Gaelic is experiencing a degree of revival, with the language almost a lingua franca (if you will) in much of the Highland and Island music scene, surely only good can follow for these disappearing tongues. Let’s hope so.

So is this all folkie fare with fiddles and fandangos to the fore? Frankly not a bit, with any expectations of that swiftly dashed. If anything, she has entrenched herself still more deeply into analog synth land. If her first two records contained residual hints of pastoralism, if bathed in a hypnotic electro-pop sheen, here she is exploring some of the nooks and crannies of electronica, evoking comparisons of the sonic experimentations of the last century; Propaganda, the Human League and, even, Hawkwind are evoked at various points in this entrancing disc. Commentators have made large of her having become a mother during the making of this album. I don’t know about that, but if that has been the driver between the synthesised and the fireside, it has worked, as this is a very human record.

An Stevel Nowydh opens with a burst of ambient noise and piano strings being struck, ahead a 4:4 beat and some chopped chords that fully expect the entry of Phil Oakey, at his most lop-sided of tonsure. But instead we get the smoother and sheerer tones of the artist herself. An engaging and endearing opener, it is wryly ironic to discover that the lyrics, in translation, open with “Welcome, sit down/Fancy a cuppa?/How are you?” Following that cracker comes the more anthemic and hymnal Anima, which has her vocal resonating over what sounds like organ, strings and woodwinds, possibly all artificial, mellotron at best, possibly all real, the whole a ravishing and heady trip, which has you intent and waiting for what’s next. Tresor, the title track, and, yes, it does mean Treasure, has a slower, moody 1960’s French pop yeh-yeh feel, over chimed instrumentation, her voice a balm as calm and expressive as that of Rumer. Flutes, possibly mellotron, and pianos conduct a conversation between the verses, it being seemingly a song that addresses the contrast of the difficulties of women have in establishing identity, with the powers then such identity then gives.

N.Y.C.A.W. takes off in a totally different direction, a kosmische beat over which Saunders bleakly intones a spoken word lyric. Instantly(!) recognisable now as Welsh, this is a tirade: Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth (Wales Is Not For Sale), a throbbing polemic. I look forward to Plaid Cymru picking it up for a their next video. Hell, I’d sign up in a shot, if they did, even if a Scot from the English Midlands. The chorus maintains the sweet psychedelia she exudes effortlessly, the guitar picking plying a contrast to the rhythm track. Which is probably the time to give a shout to the other half of Gwenno, the band, as opposed to Gwenno, the person, that being Rhys Edwards, who actually fulfils both capacities, being her husband, her producer and arranger, and playing the instrumentation she doesn’t, with much of the moog and mellotrons being her playing, as is the harp which appears now and again. Angharad Davies plays violin where it is needed.

A brief instrumental interlude, Men An Toll, named for the stone megaliths on the road to Madron, and is full of background mystical moans, all adding to the overall mood of mist and mythology, which is the perfect scene setter for Ardamm, the longest track here. A very 1970’s feel here, as it opens, another krautrock driven beat, other instruments flicking in and out, up and down, the guitars all very Dave Brock. The vocals are spoken/sung and are clearly a warning of some sort, I can understand that much from the tone. A hypnotically infectious track, it seeps into the subconscious and refuses to leave, the simplicity belying the effect.

Kan Me, or May Song, is the most organic tune here, with what sounds like a harp, leading a sinuous synth line, before Saunders takes flight with a melody that soars and sweeps into a dance that could involve either seven veils or seven threats, probably both. This song was commissioned first by Cornish film maker, Mark Jenkin (Bait), for his forthcoming film, Enys Men. Melody is then abruptly cast to one side for Keltek, as orchestral warm up noises jar uncomfortably with something wicked this way comes. Something spooky on the headland? The electronic rhythm picks up, burbles of discontent raising goosebumps in the foreground, waiting for something to happen, squelches of synth adding toward a climax that fades ahead of arrival. Anxious looks all around. Tonnow picks up, I feel, the morning after, the vocal track now appearing, ghostly over a metronomic beat. The synthesised bass and acoustic guitar beat a vividly dense forest floor, giving more weight to the more ethereal aspects offered here. A beautiful and reflective track, the two fit well together, the one after the other.

So how to wind up this contrasting essay of mood musics? Inspired by St. Ives, for which it is the Cornish name, Porth La, rounds off the set with a circular reverie of pop sensibilities, chimes and bubbling keyboards weaving around another vocal that floats up to the bluest of skies, signing off as church bells peal, inviting in the close of the record, barely forty five minutes, all well spent.

There is no google translate for the language here, or for most of it. Some hints are offered and some brief interpretation in given within the sleeve notes, but that lack of understanding is actually of little consequence to the listener, as is the case of other artists working outside the anglophone world, or, perhaps a better comparison, the wordless neolinguistics of Elisabeth Fraser or Lisa Gerrard. The opportunity is to find your own meaning, and, even if that strays from the that of the writer and performer, does that matter? It actually can add to the appreciation to have discovered both contrasts and comparisons, should that knowledge later become available. I say that, as there is also an accompanying film of the album, to follow, made with and by Anglesey based filmmaker and photographer Clare Marie Bailey. I am almost too nervous.

Here’s the opener and the initial single, An Stevel Nowydh:

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