Boundary-pushing comes naturally to Gruff Rhys. For his seventh solo album, the biography of a mountain, he has been exploring the limitations – or not – of how his music is recorded and transmitted.
This goes back to his touring days as Super Furry Animals lead vocalist, but is very much here and now too, updating quadrophonic experiments to make an album compatible with multiple devices. Hook them up and you have an Audio Orchestrator, bringing Seeking New Gods into all the angles and corners of your home, introducing a new kind of technological polyphony.
It is a thoroughly worthwhile experience, before we even get to the subject matter, which ironically is at odds with the fast-developing world. Rhys chose for his study the volcanic Mount Paektus, situated on the border between North Korea and China, but while his focus began there it steadily broadened to explore the wonders of geology, the slow moving and seemingly ever-present features of our world, and how they watch over us.
In this respect it is a comforting study, that we are a mere blip on the mountainous landscape – and the stately tread of songs like Everlasting Joy speak of a celebration of the ages. So too does the elegance of the title track, with plenty of room for Rhys’ typically searching vocals.
The album is a wonderful blend of reflection and the vocalist’s famed humour. Loan Your Loneliness turns out to be a slightly slower brother of Steely Dan’s Reelin’ in The Years, making an instant impact with its pleasing gait, probing guitar and celebratory piano. Hiking In Lights, meanwhile, has mischievous wordplay on its route, Gruff singing of how “walking a tight rope in slippery flipflops is harrowing”.
Can’t Carry On sounds like an admission of defeat early on the mountaineering expedition, but its cheery demeanour suggests the climbers will be ready for more later on, their refrain staying in the head for a long time after. Sure enough, the closing Distant Snowy Peaks confirms the summit has been scaled. Its floated piano line has a rich, oriental flavour, the starry-eyed scale perfectly matched to Gruff’s voice, “looking for truth and wisdom in the snow”.
Rhys is on superb form throughout, scaling the vocal peaks unaided but occasionally leaning on his crampons for support on the approach, represented by lightly psychedelic guitar lines. The accompanying band, recorded in Los Angeles with Beastie Boys producer Mario C, are superb, and fully deserve a namecheck. Pianist Osian Gwynedd once again shows his talent for painting brush strokes as attractive as the album’s cover, given deeper shading by Gavin Fitzjohn’s brass. Backing vocals from Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf Roberts boost Mausoleum Of My Former Self and Hiking In Lightning, while bassist Stephen Black and drummer Kliph Scurlock give excellent underpinning to the structure. Every detail is crystal clear in the Technicolor audio experience, but the analogue aspects so essential to Rhys’s music remain strong.
Seeking New Gods is simultaneously thought provoking, questioning, elegant and unsettled – but it is fundamentally a feelgood album. We find Gruff Rhys at his most natural, his winning blend of a slight, endearing shyness balanced by extrovert, psychedelic tendencies. He wins the listener over once again, hitting the highs while taking account of the lows. One of the albums of the year for sure.