A few years ago, 9Bach were a superior folk-rock band, recharging Welsh traditional song and instrumentation with modern settings. Then in the run-up to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Lisa Jen and Martin Hoyland were dispatched by the British Council to Australia, to collaborate with the Aboriginal agitprop collective the Black Arm Band. Jen found herself “vomiting songs”, and the band’s recently released second album, Tincian, is the result: largely new compositions, set in a minutely detailed sonic world whose dubby echoes betray Jen’s proclivities as a self-confessed “secret raver”.
9Bach are on a whistle-stop tour to promote Tincian, ahead of summer festival dates, and with a six-piece band behind them, the songs are toughened up. “Lliwia”, a synaesthesiac celebration of childbirth, snuck in on skittering brushed cymbals and keyboard warbles and a frantic oscillation of shakers. But when Jen, hand on heart, sang the aching chorus, folding up and over above where the melody had any right to be, it felt like trip-hop on gas and air. The next song, “Llwynog”, had a call-and-response between fingered drums and piano. Like many of 9Bach’s songs, it contained a late switchback that recast the music, in this case a series of yelps leading into furiously shaken percussion over a guitar and bass drone.
There were three-part harmonies from Jen and from Esyllt Glyn Jones (the harpist) and Mirain Roberts on “Babi’r Eirlys”, including a section of crooning melisma. But this segued straight into “Yr Eneth Ga’dd I Grthod” – “the saddest song in the history of Welsh folk song”, said Jen – taken with a jaunty country-ish swing and a glockenspiel coda. They played another traditional song, “Bwthyn Fy Nain”, like a disconsolate rural blues, Hoyland’s guitar wailing like a ghost over the skeleton clack of Ali Byworth’s sticks, and a tiny patter of glockenspiel like steady rain.
Bethesda, Jen’s home town, boasts what was once the largest slate quarry in the world; “Ffarwel”, the centrepiece of the new album, watches a miner leave it for the last time, possibly after the bitter strike in the early years of the 20th century. Here, it started with grungy guitar and bass that offset the sweetness of the women chorusing “Glwy di? Glwy di?” (“Can you hear?”); and then in place of the male voice choir on the record there was a swell of harmonium as Jen beat a funereal drum with a pair of mallets.
An evening of spectacular reinvention ended with “Wedi Torri” riding nagging and claustrophobic over tides of Dan Swain’s fast-thumbed bass; when Byworth’s drums fell silent, the bassline tumbled down and away like a landslip.