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Review: Llwybr Llaethog BBC John Peel Radio Sessions

07 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Llwybr Llaethog – John Peel Sessions, 1987 + 1989, ANKST Records

Jon Gower

Blaenau Ffestiniog, which can be pretty grey when the rainclouds drift in over Eryri, has always punched above it weight when it comes to culture.

Writers such as Gwyn Thomas and the novelist Eigra Lewis Roberts handed on the baton to the likes of Dewi Prysor, whose madcap, wildly energetic works are set in a town that sets is own rules.

Eccentric genius novelist John Cowper Powys once lived in Waterloo Terrace and would dress up like a druid when he went for a walk on the industrial spoil heaps.

And when it comes to music this former hub of the slate industry matched nearby Trawsfynydd nuclear power station for its energy, generating a long list of bands such as Anweledig, Mim Twm Llai, Frizbee, rappers Dau boi o Blaena and Gwibdaith Hen Fran.

Blaenau Ffestiniog Photo: Medwyn Roberts

But if there’s one band that sums up Blaenau’s contribution to the musical world it’s Llwybr Llaethog.

The restlessly curious, effortlessly inventive duo, Kevs Ford and John Griffiths imported rap and hip hop into the hills around Blaenau Ffestiniog, before falling in love with dub and making some incredibly catchy dance tunes, not to mention videos that were clever and zany in the same breath.

Agit-rap

Music from elsewhere always fed into the rich musical mix of Llwybr Llaethog (Milky Way) who proved to be natural collaborators on albums such as Mega Tidy, Drilacila and Mewn Dyb.

The duo sampled and scratched their turntables to create a distinctive, bass-heavy, agit rap style that was as infectious as it was angry.

They worked with David R Edwards of Datblygu, Beganifs and poet Ifor ap Glyn. They wove other languages into the mix, so that songs would include Gaelic and Punjabi. Expect the unexpected might have been their mantra.

As one of the founders of Ankst records Emyr Glyn Williams puts it: ‘They are single-handedly responsible for inserting rap, hip-hop, house, dub reggae, political cut and paste and sampling directly into the heart of a thousand-year-old Welsh language music culture. These revolutionary early tracks are culturally charged missives are as righteous as they are rhythmic.’

The new album takes us back to their John Peel Sessions of 1987 and 1989 and reminds us of the estimable contribution made by the radio DJ to the Welsh language scene, having offered session opportunities to many bands such as Datblygu and Super Furry Animals.

Influences

The Llwybr Llaethog re-presentation, over a seven track trajectory, anticipates their future techno grooves whilst surprising us with the busy range of influences in play.

Take the opening cut, ‘Tour de France 1984’ for example. This is about as far removed from its namesake track by Kraftwerk, opening with crashing heavy metal guitars that suggest that the two schoolfriends are channelling their inner Bon Jovi.

Or Joe Satriani, even until that is some hard-edged Welsh rapping comes into play, channelling the excitement first felt by Griffiths in New York City 1984.

It was a seminal moment, when group of youths at the Roxy nightclub introduced him to breakdancing even as he first encountered the sounds of Antiguan-American Kool DJ Red Alert.

Now recognized as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop culture in the United States Red Alert’s influence thus made its way to Gwynedd as if in Griffiths’ backpack.

The rhythms, breaks and beats were the same, only the language was different.

The second selection from the Peel Sessions is ‘Gyfundrefn Gyfalafol’ (The Capitalist Order) which starts as a swirl of churchy organ chords before morphing into something reminiscent of Human League or Haircut 100.

It was ever thus. Here were two avid consumers of music, ever alert to trends but steadfastly avoiding them and a pair, too, who enjoyed listening to good sounds, which they would happily embrace.

They weren’t scared of pop music either, so you can hear echoes of Paul Hardcastle’s 19 in here, as well as what Alan Freeman used to call chart toppers.

Not that that name ever applied to Llwybr Llaethog. Ever the cult, they remained as underground as moles.

Catchy pop

Sounding a bit like Falco ‘Megamics’ manages the rare feat of finding a rhyme for Llwybr Llaethog (in “Hiraethog”, naturally) before the next track delivers the catchy pop of ‘Dinas Fawr’ with its post-Kraftwerk kosmische musik hooks and driving synthesiser soundscapes.

By the time we reach Trachwant (Greed) they’re evolving swiftly into the techno duo we grew to know and love but are still surprising, such as the arrival of a trumpeter playing Dvorak on ‘Byd Mor Wahanol’ (A Different World) while the album rounds off as in in the Hacienda club with hints of Happy Mondays in the Madchester sounds of ‘Fyw Dy Fywyd’ (Live Your Life.)

Llwybr Llaethog put Blaenau Ffestiniog on the map as surely as Sir Clough Williams-Ellis took it off.

The story goes that the architect of the Italianate confectionery village of Portmeirion was one of the people who drew up the shape of Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri, the Snowdonia National Park, deciding that Blaenau wasn’t pretty enough and too industrial so drew a line around it.

Which only made bands such as Llwybr Llaethog raise a bloody big flag over Blaenau and hammer it into the shale and slate.

If all art is like that cartoon you’d see on walls proclaiming ‘Kilroy Was Here’ then Llwybr Llaethog’s catchy art was very much the same.

Here we are. Here’s our music. Listen up.

Llwybr Llaethog: BBC John Peel Radio Sessions is now available from good record shops everywhere.


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Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago

Excellent review! I’ve been an avid listener to Llwybr Llaethog ever since buying Da! in the summer of 1988, and probably have pretty much everything they’ve released. So, here’s another ‘must buy’ to listen to. Blaenau Ffestiniog has an undeserved bad rap, and I can never work out why. The people there are so friendly. I remember going to Blaenau Ffestiniog with a friend in 2002. Anweledig had a gig at the rugby club, and both myself and friend were big fans of the band. It was not just an amazing night, but earlier in the day people on the… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

John and Kevs ! That took me back…

Who remembers Donovan’s mate Gipsy Dave when he was a Blaenau artist ?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

The history of the music scene of this area is worth a book at least, from the early days of Cob Records and rock royalty staying in the ‘big house’,

These two owe a lot to a lovely guy long dead called Rog RIP…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Someone called them the Sly and Robbie of punk when they were in the Managing Directors, a band on the late seventies London punk scene…

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