In the orb of modern day music, Richard Dawson is about as original as it gets.
The Geordie mastermind possesses a mental nimbleness like no other around, interconnecting a slew of genres with the kind of themes one spends years researching in libraries and burning the midnight oil. Yes, Dawson is a true one off.
While 2020 (2019), Peasant (2017) and Nothing Important (2014) have demanded enough column inches over the years, last year saw Dawson upped the ante with his lockdown project, Bulbils (the 50 plus albums he released in collaboration with partner, Sally Pilkington). There was also the small matter of a Hen Ogledd record, Free Humans, too. No rest for the wicked, which is why it would have been strange to see Dawson spend 2021 on the side lines.
Enter Finnish metal ensemble, Circle. The band and Dawson struck up a friendship via Twitter, sharing an adoration for each other’s work; the love-in culminating with Dawson accompanying the band for their set at Helsinki’s Sideways Festival in 2019.
The rest is history. Or indeed, Henki – the much anticipated collaboration album, which was recorded just before lockdown last year.
Once described as “the world’s greatest band – in every category” Circle (Pekka Jääskeläinen – guitar; Julius Jääskeläinen – guitar; Jussi Lehtisalo – bass, voice; Mika Rättö – keyboard, voice; Tomi Leppänen – drums; and Janne Westerlund – guitar, voice), join Dawson in something that goes beyond the limits either has previously reached.
In a sense, Henki is a paradoxical tour de-force, with Dawson and Circle producing their most accessible work yet, despite holding firm on their core creative principles.
Inspired by Westerlund instructing the group during these recording sessions to be less straightforward and more “like a plant”, Henki takes its cues from the vast array of foliage throughout history.
With this in mind, Dawson still manages to weave his medieval tales through this particular floral-inspired journey. From monarchs to broth-dribblers, linked with Circle’s genre-hoping antics, the amalgamation of strange sound worlds becomes that much more strange on Henki.
Cooksonia would only make sense as the album’s opening song. With Circles’ creeping rhythms and odyssey-like synths, suddenly Cooksonia unfurls into some campfire fairy tale, which sees the British protagonist studying at the University of Melbourne only to return to the UK with Australian botanist, Ethel McLennan.
Again sythn-heavy, Ivy unravels into an epic wonder. Think of an Iron Maiden tribute band selling out O2 academies across the country and you’re half way there. The other half, a make-up of mind-bending medieval themes where poachers, greedy kings, and dogs getting tossed down wells all get the necessary Dawson treatment.
Breaching the drawbridge, Circle infiltrate the Geordie’s kingdom on Silphium. A song that could have ended up on 2020 until Circle have their say, shoving Dawson down the rabbit hole where he is met with glittery prog-rock lunacy. The result is like a soundtrack to a kids’ birthday party.
Silene is, without doubt, Henki’s sleeper track. While there are more wild tales about research teams from Moscow, it’s the transparency between Dawson and Circle that proves the greatest boon. Circle play their cards right here. Evidently a metal band, however they reign in the riffs, giving space for Dawson’s gentle vocal and falsetto to dominate the track.
The artistic precision continues on Methuselah – a song only Dawson and Circle together could render as something palatable. Part oddity, part banger, Methuselah is like Dio-era Sabbath twisted into an eccentric form of journey-metal. Had anyone else attempted such a thing, it would pass off as some parody metal thing with extra cheese. Not here, though.
Then there’s the lead single, Lily. Inspired by haunted visions experienced by Dawson’s mother when she worked as a nurse in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, if pop and metal were ever going to make for likely bedfellows, then Lily would be the catalyst. Let’s not waste your time in explaining why. Just listen, it’s beautiful.
Which leads us to Pitcher, ending Henki with Circle getting the final say. Here Dawson, if you will, goes metal. While admirable, it’s Circle who stamp the real authority, calling time on yet another vital collaboration album in 2021.
There’s little doubt that the likes of 2020 and Peasant were late night companions without the family in the tow. Granted, Hen Ogledd’s Free Humans had a pop banger or two, but (like Dawson’s solo offerings) was a little too bizarre, ending with middle-aged crate diggers retreating into the shadows with headphones intact.
With Henki – a hypnotic overlap of folk, pop, and metal – things couldn’t be more different. Whether a seamless transition, or a case of Circle forcing his hand, make no mistake about it – this is Richard Dawson version 2.0. This is Richard Dawson for the family and, believe it or not, it actually works.
Henki is out tomorrow via Domino Recording Co. Purchase from Bandcamp.