Gruff Rhys’ new album Seeking New Gods takes a real mountain – Paektu Mountain – as its starting point and then creates its own mythology around the idea that “Mountains outlast all the different political situations and people, and I liked the idea of a biography that lasts a really long time, spanning the rise and fall of whole civilisations and the various peoples who adapted their mythologies to the mountain itself.”. The album was created with Rhys’ touring band, with the itinerant group writing and refining the songs over a tour and then recording the bulk of them in a studio in the Mojave Desert and finishing them off in Bristol.
There is a phenomenal cohesion to the 9 tracks, a testament to Gruff Rhys’ writing prowess but also as someone who appreciates the amazing work that you can achieve when you form a creative bubble with such great musicians. In this case Kliph Scurlock on drums, Osian Gwynedd on piano, Sweet Baboo’s Stephen Black on bass, 9 Bach’s Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf Roberts on vocals, brass from Gavin Fitzjohn (who just released his own album as 299 for the PNKSLM label).
‘Mausoleum of My Former Self’ builds autobiographical lyrics into a horn-filled Mariachi delight, the pastoral beauty of ‘Can’t Carry On’, is as graceful as a watching a Swift perform aerial acrobatics, ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ has bar room piano and perfect synth lines, ‘Seeking New Gods’ is a slow reflection that reminded me of ‘Dirty Work’ by Steely Dan and features glorious harmonies and Gruff Rhys also says that “the title is a desperately dark joke about this wretched time were living through”. ‘Hiking in Lightning’ is a fuzzbox frenzy and the instrumental pauses, which allow the voices to respond with the title, is inspired. ‘Holiest of the Holy Men’ sounds like the band channelling Randy Newman though a semi-psychedelic filter, ‘The Keep’ bounces along on the piano riff and mixes the rough and the smooth as calm passages give way to the explosive, juddering chorus of brass squawks and strafing drums. ‘Everlasting Joy’ feels monumental and strangely melancholy and it’s like the journey we take to arrive at the final track ‘Distant Snowy Peaks’ where you can imagine arriving at the top of this mythical mountain and looking down at the past and staring off into the future.
Seeking New Gods has got vista in spades, this album fills your field of vision with epic landscapes and a heady sense of weather patterns. It’s apt that the music feels as timeless as a mountain albeit drawing on the influence of West Coast American music. It also includes of 70s staple instrument the Solina string synthesiser of which Gruff Rhys says “It sounds ridiculous but I was imagining the washes of synthesisers as weather systems wrapping around the mountain, like swirling clouds obscuring the songs. I kept a drone of Solina going throughout the album, to hold the whole thing together”. Once again Gruff Rhys has brought sensitivity and intelligence to a set of outstanding songs that allow us to spend quality time in his imagination.
Review by Paul F Cook