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NEW RELEASE: Alaw - Dead Man's Dance

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Back in 2013 I was impressed by this trio’s debut CD, Melody (a literal translation of the trio’s name, as it happens), on which guitarist Dylan Fowler, together with Mabon frontliners Jamie Smith (accordion) and Oliver Wilson-Dickson (violin), so captivatingly celebrated the unique concept of melody that characterises Welsh traditional music through their instinctive and close-knit exploration of the elements of rhythm and harmony to be found within.

Alaw’s follow-up disc is the result not just of three more years’ expertise but also of a developmental rethink of their modus operandi. Complete though Melody had felt, Dead Man’s Dance represents something of a real leap forward into another dimension of musical expression, for this time round seven of the 11 tracks feature vocals, and these are carefully and sensitively distributed, according to the demands of the song, between Oliver, (more occasionally) Jamie, and guest singers Gwilym Bowen Rhys (Plu, Y Bandana) and Georgia Ruth. The latter’s stand-out moment comes on her delicate voicing of traditional song Y G’lomen’s expression of great longing, while she also duets with Oliver on Hen Erddigan Morganwg and his own composition Stones, a heartfelt plea for tolerance when tempted by retaliation. Oliver’s other compositions (both also sung in English) comprise Seven Stories, which focuses on the universal and contemporary relevance of the bardic tales, and When It’s Gone, which encourages us to make the most of the moment (culminating in a luxurious lap steel and cello fadeout). Gwilym’s vocal contributions are also outstanding: there’s a lusty, driven Welsh version of the shanty Santiana (featuring guest Antwn OIwen Hicks on Galician bagpipes), contrasting with a beautifully realised take on the heartbreaking traditional song Lisa Lân (Oliver excels with some warm viola counterpoint here).

The instrumental tracks are also well contrasted in mood; the disc’s exciting opening medley delivers a pair of tricky dances, one of which (Dawns Soïg) Dylan wrote for a Breton friend (whose culture has clearly inspired its lively rhythms), while Iâr Fach Y Haf lazily flutters along by (as befits its title) and Pan O’wn Y Gwanwyn takes its cue from a lovely modal melody that brilliantly epitomises the climate of the trio’s music-making. Invariably but always with freshness, Dylan’s gentle yet enthralling trademark guitar work is threaded subtly through the canvas of each and every track, as is the equally trademark intuitive interplay between Jamie’s accordion and Oliver’s violin, but additionally we should not underestimate the importance and quality of the impeccably-chosen guest contributions to this album, which to Alaw’s credit neither overshadow nor distract from the special character of the core trio’s own music-making. A nice touch also to have bilingual text in the mirror-image accompanying booklet.

alaw-band.com

David Kidman