Barafundle, the fourth LP from off-kilter Carmarthenshire outfit Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, came out on the 7th of April 1997 – that’s twenty years ago. Christophe from La Forme has written a few words to mark the occasion.
A sharp contrast to the bloated rock star posturing of Oasis‘s Be Here Now and the pre-millennial stress of Radiohead‘s OK Computer, Barafundle arrived in April 1997, seemingly cut off from all current trends and influences and with none of the bullish, misplaced self-confidence of the ‘Britpop’ that preceded it. Instead, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci created their own world of childhood memories and half-remembered stories from the Welsh coast and furnished it with a wide array of delicate, imaginative acoustic instrumentation.
Over sixteen brisk tracks, Barafundle celebrates the simple pleasures of visiting relatives, good weather, warm fires, and growing up in West Wales. Musically, the band file back the often dizzying psychedelic eccentricities of their previous albums and replace them with spacious acoustic arrangements, soft brass, and odd medieval flourishes. This approach gives the band’s wonderful melodies and harmonies clarity and space to breathe.
Better Rooms… features a gentle, rolling sea of vocals that manages to sound slightly queasy and wonderfully heartening at the same time. Once heard, Heywood Lane‘s singalong ending is never forgotten, and you’ll always find yourself humming it while doing the washing up. Pen Gwag Glas is bookended with the choral singing of faux-medieval Welsh monks and takes in stately verses before opening up into an infectious, bouncy chorus; a sort of prog-folk song in miniature.
Despite the album’s nostalgia for first loves, stamp collecting, and china plates, it never becomes too sickly-sweet for the ears. The inquisitive and morbid nature of children’s minds and imaginations provides the album’s dark corners: opening track Diamond Dew best encapsulates this, contrasting its memories of an idyllic home life (“room is warm, organ plays…”) with a disconcerting line about the “uncovering of the bodies”. This is possibly a reference to medieval burial sites being found along the Pembrokeshire coast – catnip to imaginative young minds. Dark Night marries another wonderfully hummable melody to lyrics concerning the death of two young girls on Halloween. It’s a story that you can imagine children embellishing for years on local schoolyards. Sometimes the Father is the Son, a melancholy and brittle paean to (possibly) an absent father, is one of the album’s highlights; a mournful violin line weaves through the song, adding to the protagonist’s subtle moment of clarity during the chorus.
The mischief of youth (and of the band) also works its way into many of the songs. The album’s most poignant moment is followed by its heaviest and strangest track, Meirion Wyllt, an incongruous ‘cut-and-shut’ song that starts with a rare distorted guitar and features an ear-piercing vocal welded to a restrained, gentle chorus. It’s there again on The Wizard and the Lizard‘s strangled backing vocals, and in American Narrator‘s ending, and in the sound of the piano lid slamming shut and the just-audible ‘ow!’ at the end of Heywood Lane. And then there are the flashes of medieval instrumentation (apparently added in hindsight once the album had been completed) and the use of a Jew’s harp to ‘awake’ the album’s opening track, Diamond Dew.
These quirky embellishments simply add to Barafundle‘s eccentric charm and as good as their later albums are, it was this aspect of the band that I came to miss.
Barafundle‘s simple and understated artwork – a pin board of memories, childhood photographs and trinkets – echoes the album’s main theme, with a postcard of the titular Barafundle Bay pinned right in the middle. The rise of the internet and the common practice of posting ‘digital memories’ online has elevated the cover’s quaintness, and the image really encapsulates the magic of Barafundle. In the twenty years since its release, progress has made the world created by this album seem all the more distant and romantic. As the record has grown older, much like a treasured memory, it has become more and more precious. This must be the reason why, in two decades, Barafundle has never strayed too far from my stereo.
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