by Sally McGraw
During the first half of the 20th century, the Welsh language threatened to drop out of existence. Recent efforts to revive Welsh as both an official and a spoken language have seen some success, yet only about 21 percent of the Welsh population is fluent.
Among that 21 percent are Cardiff-based Super Furry Animals vocalist Gruff Rhys, guitarist Huw Bunford (Bunf), keyboardist Cian Ciaran, drummer Dafydd Ieuan (Daf) and bassist Guto Pryce. In fact, this group of post-alternative prog-pop explorers wrote and performed exclusively in their native tongue for the first three years of their collective career. This bold and quasi-patriotic choice earned them the adoration and respect of a remarkably cross-generational Welsh fanbase. The group’s first two EPs—Lianfairpwllgywgyllgoger Chwymdrobwlltysiliogoygoyocynygofod (In Space) and Moog Droog—were both sung entirely in Welsh.
According to Rhys, “Singing in Welsh is not a mystic experience. Welsh
is a modern European language.”
when British listeners got their hands on these two EPs, and Super Furry Animals
began to gather momentum outside of Wales, the group found themselves at a crossroads.
And just before signing a six-record deal with Creation in 1995, SFA made the
decision to begin performing and writing mainly in English. Although this linguistic
shift made their songs more accessible to a huge potential-listener pool, the
Welsh press branded SFA as traitors.
The group responded to these hostile critics by recording “Nid Hon Yw’r
Gan Sy’n Mynd I Achub Yr Laith” which means “This is a Song
to Save the Welsh Language (Not).”
“I understand people’s worries that the young are just flushing
their culture down the pan,” said Rhys of the backlash. “We do feel
some kind of social responsibility, but because we’ve been playing in
bands since we were 13, playing in pubs, getting up to no good … that
doesn’t make for particularly responsible people.”
Nearly 10 years later, is there any lingering animosity about the changeover?
“Not by us,” responded Bunford.
And certainly not by the throngs of fans and critics who might never have discovered
this groundbreaking, genre-melding quintet, had they not made the fateful switch.
Since their full-length debut in 1996—the critically-revered Fuzzy
Logic—the group has unleashed seven studio albums on the unsuspecting
world. Among these is the 2000 release, Mwng, which saw them revert briefly
to an all-Welsh songlist. (Mwng is the most successful Welsh language
album ever recorded, and, ironically, has sometimes been called SFA’s
most accessible work.) However it is the group’s English language albums
that have seen them slowly but surely recruit an army of loyal fans.
Listening to a Super Furry Animals album is like watching a Darren Aronofsky
movie. You’ll experience both slow-building energy and moments of frantic
climax, absorb both disturbingly bizarre and archetypically familiar imagery,
and be acutely aware that the human imagination is a grossly underrated force
of creation. The
SFA catalog includes songs about the Clinton-Lewinski scandal, golden retrievers,
the Falklands War, Venus and Serena Williams, the aging process and aliens.
Lots and lots of aliens. All five members contribute to the songwriting process,
which undoubtedly accounts for some diversity of subject matter. But much of
it can be attributed to the fact that these musicians are among the most adroit
and inventive in modern music.
Most SFA albums—particularly 2001’s Rings Around the World
and 2003’s Phantom Power—veer from falsetto-laden epic rockers
to infectious pop confections to explosive electronic experiments. And yet,
these genre-defying albums are unified by their common elements: lavish three-
and four-part harmonies, a polished and highly-produced sound, and the underlying
and ineffable merit of the individual songs. Of course, there are a couple of
duds on each recording—and the group has a predilection for creating absurdly
long, odd, spiraling endings for tunes that otherwise might be impeccable. (Rings
Around the World’s “Receptacle for the Respectable” begins
as a brilliantly hooky, upbeat pop tune, but deteriorates into a roaring, dissonant
mass of self-indulgence.) But, on the whole, songs like the radiant anthem “Hello
Sunshine” and haunting antiwar parable “The Piccolo Snare”
are what this band offers their listeners. And those listeners lap it up with
recently-released Love Kraft is no exception. This album feels slightly
more subdued than its predecessors—perhaps being recorded over three weeks
in Spain and mixed over a summer in Rio imbued the record with languid energy.
Or perhaps, after 10 years of surrealist freneticism, the group is ready to
slow down a bit. Regardless of the reason, the change suits SFA. Swooping string
arrangements abound, as do haunting vocals from a 100-person Catalonian choir—lending
this batch of songs a soothing sound present only sporadically in previous recordings.
Never fear: Love Kraft presents a couple of wickedly furibund tunes, including
“Lazer Beam” and “Oi Frango.” But somnolent songs such
as “Walk You Home” and “Cloudberries” dominate. This
album covers the usual ground in terms of subject matter: fear of flying, unwanted
pregnancies and a giant laser that cleanses people of their inner evils. On
the whole, Love Kraft is a pleasantly mature—if slightly muted—extension
of the band’s previous work.
Does this mellow record mean Super Furry Animals may have outgrown their penchant
for outlandish onstage antics? Will we never see the band don their yeti costumes
again? Will we never see a demonic bear balloon floating outside an SFA-hosting
venue? Hard to say. We’re talking about a band that seeks to be constantly
surprising. Perhaps love of the mother country will win in the end, and their
upcoming Fine Line show will be performed entirely in Welsh. ||
Super Furry Animals perform Mon., Nov. 21 at the Fine Line Music Cafe with
Caribou. 8:30 p.m. 19+. $16/$18. 318 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8100.
To find out more about Super Furry Animals, check out
their official website at SuperFurry.com.