From his tales of north east kingdoms over 1,000 years old to prescient snapshots of the current shitshow, as a solo artist Richard Dawson is a mind-bending odyssey.
Then there’s Dawson‘s Bulbils project with his partner, Sally Pilkington, who during lockdown have so far released 49 albums (take that, Robert Pollard).
Alongside Pilkington, the pair are joined by Dawn Bothwell and Rhodri Davies for their next adventure as Hen Ogledd – and more specifically the band’s third album, Free Humans.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has rightfully dominated the conversation in much of 2020 and for the foreseeable future, the subjects of climate change and Brexit seem to have receded in the nation’s conscious. With Free Humans, Hen Ogledd remind us that these concerns will (rightfully) remain as, pardon the pun, burning issues (see Bwganod and Space Golf).
Opening song, Farewell, is what all opening songs should be. Its immediacy is the most pop-orientated piece of music Dawson has lent his voice to and it works an absolute treat.
The gleaming hooks don’t stop there, either.
The glam stomp of Trouble is equally as catchy while Crimson Star follows suite in the realm of dance-floor skirting pop bangers.
The playful ’80s cheesy pop of Time Party unfolds with one of the bleakest messages on the album. “Bomb the banks/Shrink the economy/Keep your wallets in your pockets/Time Party,” yells Pilkington. It’s a searing rant with weird-world unions representing exactly where Hen Ogledd are at their most comfortable.
They could write a barnstorming front-to-back pop record, without doubt. But throwing in red herrings such as the downright ridiculous The Loch Ness Monster’s Song and the Bowie-inspired dystopian drone-pop of Kebran Gospel Gossip are moments on Free Humans that encapsulates the extremities of Hen Ogledd. It’s the primary make-up of the band’s DNA and ultimately what separates them from their peers.
For every Flickering Lights you have the likes of Skinny Dippers and Earworm which both sound like the bare bones of something Nine Inch Nails have been producing recently. It sounds absurd but that’s Hen Ogledd – always throwing down the gauntlet to their audience.
Then there’s the clear highlight on Free Humans that is the woozy pop delight of Space Golf.
Intertwining the themes of climate change and Brexit, Space Golf unfurls with genius-like bluster, firmly directed at the one-percenters hell-bent on protecting their investments by any means possible. Here’s the thing though, dickheads – you can’t play golf in space… It’s a song that could have appeared on a K Records compilation back in the day.
With their fingers well and truly on the pulse, Hen Ogledd are at their very best on Free Humans. While it may take repeated listens to fully digest, there aren’t many left-field indie-pop outfits that explore every blade of grass in the world in which they occupy.
Alongside Keeley Forsyth, once again, it feels like those in north are showing the way for the rest of the country. You wouldn’t know it of course, because, well, ‘it’s just that lot up there, isn’t it?’
While some things never change, at least Hen Ogledd are pushing against the death train.