Wales And The Hygge Of The Hillsides: A weekend In The Brecon Beacons

The trendy Danish concept of ‘hygge’ – a cosy, memorable, charming feeling of being utterly at ease – might have peaked as the big conceptual winter fashion, but it remains a wonderful concept. Here’s why a trip to the hills of South Wales is full of just the right kind of Hygge-like, cuddly charm…

Somewhere between Anglesea’s expansively named Llanfairpwllgwyngyll… (yes, we cut off two-thirds of the name, it is that long) and the Brecon Beacons National Park, you hit the winding hillside roads of Snowdonia. You cruise gently under tunnels of trees, the climate seemingly changing as you cross through each little hillside pass and rugged, three-house village. The land has that soggy green depth that feels like it hasn’t been dry in months, the texture reminiscent of an ancient realm of Hobbits. It’s the kind of place you almost drift through, giving re-emerging onto a dual carriageway the air of a post-dream slap around the face.

If Snowdonia is the realm of Hobbits, the Brecons feel more like they belong to the giants. The southern park is all expansive sweeping valleys, soaring hillsides and picture box villages that look unchanged in generations. They’re full of open spaces, their every building dwarfed by airy and enticing surrounds.

The main draw of the Brecons, then, is the scenery. In winter the slow rising roads lead you through tiny clusters of ageing houses, the pathways edging above the treelines until they burst out suddenly into great soaring valleys. They’re often spattered in shining snow barely hinted at a mile down the road, and stretching to distant but attainable peaks.

In the summer, this is a hiking hub. In winter you’d need to be more hardy to hit the upper slopes, but the delicate stone of the tiny towns comes into its own, lit up in slanting light and offering cosy corners next to fires to envelope guests.

Hay-On-Wye is one of the area’s more notable stop offs, and the place looks unchanged in decades. Tents pop up at weekends to expand the countless disorganised treasure-trove antique stores into the streets, while dozens of booksellers cram every spare inch with tomes, everything from first editions to scrappy paperbacks collected indoors and out, in more stores than a village could reasonably need.

There’s a regular vintage fair, where dozens of traders take root in every nook of the town, hawking anything from ships anchors and gemstone pendants to 1970s jigsaw puzzles, and doing so in the charmingly melodic local lilt from inside covered market squares and tiny lean-tos.

Reflections On Summer Sun: The Vaccines Champion A Return To Simple Roots.

Born of summer shenanigans, The Vaccines frontman Justin Hayward-Young says the return of the Londoners with fourth album ‘Combat Sports’ is a trek back to their routes, via a half-century of new songs, a touch of nervousness, and occupying the band’s ‘natural space’.

EIGHT YEARS after forming, and swiftly becoming one of Britain’s most exciting and popular rock bands almost by accident, The Vaccines fourth album ‘Combat Sports’ is, perhaps, a product of a band finally taking some time for reflection. It’s been a frantic ride, and not one the million-selling rockers exactly planned.

The early days of The Vaccines have acquired almost mythological status. Taking a break from his more regular role as a folk singer under the guise of Jay Jay Pistolet (a genre Hayward-Young’s confident he’ll return to at some point, though not under the guise of The Vaccines), the Vaccines frontman admits that the myth – though perhaps exaggerated – has elements of truth.

“We were just f*cking around in the summer,” Hayward-Young recalls. “‘Wetsuit’ and ‘Do You Wanna’ were written during a summer holiday, and weren’t supposed to be some kind of mission statement. I was borrowing a friends guitar, and played the songs to a couple of people.”

“I was just enjoying it with nothing else to do, really, and made a quick demo from the song I wrote. It got out there and I got an email to go and have coffee with someone in the industry, and that was it. It went from there.”

The road from summer shenanigans has been somewhat jittery, if also ecstatic. “It was very nerve-wracking,” Hayward-Young recalls. “We didn’t really know how to deal with the way things were taking off, and with the big crowds to start with. It was really weird and hard.”

Some years later, in 2016, drummer and backing vocalist Pete Robinson departed the band, triggering a period of contemplation, and the rootsy return that is ‘Combat Sports’, arguably the closest The Vaccines have come to those heady early days of messing around in rock.

Lockout: Spook of The Thirteenth Lock Return with Guitar-Driven Historical Epic

Newly expanded to an eighteen-piece and back with a beautiful concept album dedicated to a key moment in Irish history (just in time for St Patrick’s Day), Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock look set to cement their place as one of Ireland’s most original acts…

There’s very little conventional about Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock. Their conversation flits happily between their pervasive politics – substantially left-leaning – and the charisma of their music. They work on albums for years before launching them onto the market, playing relatively rarely, with a focus on areas like historical accuracy. They also make sure they enjoy the ride.

The product is rock that’s riddled with Irish influence and hefty chords, but also comfortably distinct from trad, the Irish punk scene or even local folk.

Their growth has been an incremental one, in a sense, though rarely less than fantastically ambitious. “We started out as a four-piece, around 2006,” guitarist Enda Bates tells us. “For the second album we bounced up to a five-piece, then added an extra guitar. After that last album, we started to change our approach, and added all the extra guitars.”

That growth to an eighteen-piece has seen Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock develop into a different kind of band, one that’s able to produce layered power and gorgeous, jarring nuance.“Technically it is a full orchestra,” Bates explains, “in that its lots of different people playing the same part. There’s the core group, and they take care of the more complex, melodic stuff, and then the guitars are divided into four parts, playing together.”

“There are some American groups that put together symphonies for one hundred or two hundred electric guitars, but there’s not much out there like it. It’s an incredible sound, it’s like the comparison between one violin and an orchestra of violins. You get this really thick, slightly jarring feel.”

“It was something we were always interested in,” he explains of the change, and it kind of thematically fit with Lockout, with the big groups of workers all working together.” The Lockout he refers to, of course, is the industrial dispute between 20,000 worker s and their employees that took place over the rights of workers to unionise and preposterous working conditions, led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly in late 1913 and early 1914. The Lockout had impacts across Dublin society.

A Disaffected Wave: Exploring Darkstar’s Slow-Build Melancholy.

Huddersfield (UK) dance duo Darkstar are very much a vibe act. James Young and Aiden Whalley operate in the soft, synthy underbelly of dubstep, producing mood-led, slow-building tracks that ebb and flow, their sum greater than their gently-fused parts.

There’s a melancholy to that sound, personified in hit single ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’ and third album ‘Foam Island’. It’s vibe that the DJ pair have riffed off in recent years as they’ve pulled back on the live shows, becoming a club dancefloor mainstay, and taken the time to drop it all in favour of projects that take a deep dive into the pair’s tonally beautiful disaffection.

“We were approached about putting together a project on migrant communities in inner-city Liverpool,” Whalley says of their latest project away from the decks, Trackbed. “We liked the idea of it, and spent a few months working on it. It’s been our main focus. I think it’s hard at times to just crack on making tunes.”

“At times it gets too cyclical, and we just wanted to try something else. We liked the idea of scoring things, putting installations together. It makes us think about things rather than sit in a studio. Obviously politically it resonates, too [the pair are noted for their left-leaning approach to social issues].”

“In Trackbed they kind of had a concept in mind for us, but we’ve also done work about young people in Huddersfield.” The duo have named a number of releases after Huddersfield postcodes, in fact, in tributes to their origins. “I think the idea, though we didn’t want to explicitly say it, was to look at how little they care about politics, how disaffected they are.”

The Liverpudlian production saw Darkstar taking a break from the new album in order to soundtrack an electronic exhibition in the city that focuses critically on the UK and India’s shared history, zooming in on heritage and migration. It was the product of a long-standing residency at Harthill Youth Centre in the city, and went on to be aired at London’s Barbican Centre.

The band’s sound has subtly evolved in the meantime, presenting new challenges to Young in particular, who appears vocally on tracks for the first time. The band traditionally shy away from personal focus, preferring dingy atmospherics, and to let their sound do the talking, so this is quite a change.

My Top Five Books of 2017

A snowstorm is a perfect chance to write the blog posts I’ve been meaning to do since the turn of the year, right? Belatedly, then, here are the best books I read in 2017 (picked from just under 50 I managed to work my way through), and just why I loved them. I decided to make this an annual thing in part because I’ve already flicked back to last year’s post half a dozen times to check the names of certain authors whose other books I’m dying to read (good memory and a young child don’t go well together, it turns out), but also because I’ve found reading has edged to easily on a par with music for what fills my free time (free time – haha) these days, and a good 90% of this website is about music. So, you know, balance or something. As with last time, these are not necessarily books released in 2017, they’re simply books I read in 2017. More importantly, these are some great books. Go read them!

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (link)

This is a chunky enough book to put off the casual reader (it was only after seeing more than half a dozen people absolutely raving about it online that I was willing to commit to 600-plus pages), but what a fantastically imaginative and evocative tale it is. Starting in rural Cork, with a young woman pregnant by dubious means and very publically expelled from her community, it weaves through the lifetime of the child, which encompasses much of the time of the existence of the modern Irish state. Cyril Avery’s winding tale is picked up at various key moments of his life, incorporating key political events, the progress of the gay rights movement, the influence of the church and – critically to the enjoyment of the story – a poignant and unforgettable tale around the main character.  I was sad when it ended, which is saying something for a novel of this length.

Pirates, Punks and Politics by Nick Davidson (link)

It’s hard not to be a touch disillusioned with football these days, which can be hard as a lifelong fan of the game, but the levels of imbalance amongst clubs and the sense that the vast majority are there to be also-rans sits heavy, and it’ll take more than a Leicester premier league title to convince me otherwise. I was lucky enough to catch German club St Pauli play against Union Berlin in Hamburg a few years ago. Whilst not the only ones, they are the stand out club that convinces me football still has its soul. Pirates, Punks and Politics is the story of an Englishman falling in love with the club (I’d be on that boat if it was within the realms of life’s realities, to be honest), and their story is incredible. Born out of the harder edge of what’s now the city’s party district, the Reeperbahn, the club has been at best modestly successful (they typically, and currently, sit in the German second tier), but play with an ethos of left-wing politics, social equality, anti-abuse, atmospheric protest and progressive views that is encapsulated in this book. I can’t help loving them, though I dread to think what the parties are like.

Gorgon City: Building A Dance Dynasty

Accessible London house act combine beats and an intelligent approach to building their business in an effort to take over the world of chart dance, and flit into the underground, too.

In a world where some of music’s biggest artists are commercialising their work in – from a fan’s perspective, at least – all the wrong ways, it’s refreshing to see more of an ethos-driven, hard-working and multi-faceted approach to slipping seamlessly into the big time.

London house music duo Gorgon City are not quite a household name yet, and a far cry from the growing world of high-cost VIP meet and greets or ticket sales linked in with buying a small heap of merchandise. In their world, though, they’re edging close to the summit, and the story of their rise is about far more than 2014 hit single ‘Ready For Your Love’.

The duos sound is always beat-driven, taking much of its inspiration from the deep house and garage scenes, but adds chart colour with a series of special guest vocalists. In the past, their tracks have incorporated anyone from MNET to Klaxons, Wyclef Jean to Jennifer Hudson.

Performing both live and as DJs, and perhaps most importantly as part of a heavily franchised, multinational radio show, the pair have developed their music in a series of directions, also splitting their sound into what they see as their chart-ready, accessible angle and a more underground, edgy buzz that comes out in DJ sets and in their popular, franchised radio show.

“The radio show still feels new,” Kye ‘Foamo’ Gibbon tells us ahead of their return to Dublin club District 8. “It’s been exciting to have a radio show in a lot of countries where we’ve never actually played. It’s led to a lot of new bookings coming from places like South America, Asia and Eastern Europe.”

“It’s also a really cool project,” he continues. “It really keeps us on top of new music, and helps us work towards the development of our own label. We hope to be releasing stuff from other people before too long, and we’re keeping a close eye on quite a few up and coming producers.”

The Free-Wheeling Reincarnation of O Emperor

Returning to the scene after a break of a couple of years, O Emperor leave behind their hang-ups, delving into a free-spirited, avant-garde, industry-ignoring new phase. The Waterford act are back, but not as you know them…

When they burst onto the Irish music scene with major-label debut Hither Thither, O Emperor were a band known for their meticulous attention to detail. They wrote beautiful, haunting indie-pop songs that meandered wonderfully, every note carefully adjusted in agonised-over studio recordings.

That startling attention to detail was a blessing and a curse: at times a constraint on the release of the band’s music, but creating a distinctive and much-loved sound that propelled them to national attention. In hindsight, frontman Paul Savage admits “We needed to let that perfectionism go and accept that at a certain point what we’ve done is actually fine. We used to obsess over things like the exact level of reverb. Looking back, I don’t think other people really notice or care about things like that.”

After a couple of years away, O Emperor returned having done a full 180. New single ‘Make It Rain’ is the first offering from an as yet untitled new album, and the first of a series of pre-album singles set to come out over the course of a year. The band also completed their live return with first show in some time last week at Cork’s Quarter Block Party.

“We did most of the recording two years ago, but we’ve only got to mixing now,” Savage explains. “We’re very bad at taking our time with things. We got a notion to go ahead with it now, though, so we’ve gone ahead. We’ve gone really rough and ready with stuff. It’s actually written live. It’s just live jams. We recorded two to three hours of us jamming and picked out bits we liked, and chopped up and constructed some bits in the edit. Then we added the vocals later, but even the vocals were kind of made up on the spot in some cases.”

“It’s influenced by things like Sun Ra, Can, and krautrock stuff, and really concentrates on atmosphere. It can actually be quite difficult to reproduce live, and it’s really radically different to anything we’ve done before. It’s already evolved quite a lot from the record in rehearsal and in the live show, as it’s very difficult to actually reproduce what you did before. There are clashed notes, odd chords, stuff like that.”

“We’re trying to base the live show in a framework and jam around that,” he continues, “which can be hard to do, especially where you’re nervous. It’s easy to mess up on the spot, but it’s really exciting to do.”

Music Magpies: the Eclectic Indie Beats of Django Django

Having bounced from a bedroom-DIY debut that brought a Mercury Prize nomination, to a follow up they seem to have dismissed as an uninspired blip, Django Django – an almost impossible band to peg – are back with a third album, ‘Marble Skies’, and heading for Dublin..

Django Django have been hovering around the edges of a burgeoning indie scene for years, hard to define but easy to love. They draw in aspects of straight-up indie rock, electro-punk, mild psychedelic tendencies and plenty of varied, often-sampled beats.

The entire concept seems to hang on limitless experiment, something that’s evolved strongly through their careers, and now revolves around a large practise room in Tottenham (North London), crammed with their monstrous vinyl collection and all the instrumentation they need.

“We have to take it a little differently now,” frontman Vincent Neff – a native of Derry – says of the band’s everyday life. “When we’re back in London, it’s very much a normal working schedule, as some of us have families, so the whole all-night, up drinking while we write music thing is largely a thing of the past. That’s totally different on tour, of course, but when we’re recording we have to consider family life.”

“What we produce comes largely from a lack of belief in genre. Dave [Maclean, the band’s producer and drummer] has a crazy techno record collection, while the other lads have other influences. There are five or six new records coming into the practise space every week. Growing up in the 90s you were going to a gig one night and a rave the next, listening to the Happy Mondays and hard house. I don’t really understand how anyone can just be into a genre, and come out with stuff like ‘I just listen to techno’. That idea eroded for us a long time ago.”

There are difficulties with that variety, of course, not least in Django Django’s textured and nuanced sound being extremely difficult to reproduce live. “It takes a long time to sort,” Neff admits, laughing. “You get onto the stage and it sounds different. There are definitely some songs we just can’t do, and others that are different live, that we change the rhythm of, or use different instruments.”

“Some songs we try for a few minutes as a live setup and it’s immediately obvious it’s just not going to work. Others we kind of stumble on solutions.”