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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Review: The Serpents - You Have Just Been Poisoned By The Serpents (Released in 1999 on the Ochre label)

First put online on the Head Heritage website in 2003.

In february of 2000, I was sent an unmarked cassette tape with the curious instruction: "Play this on the way over, when you come to see us". 
Thus spake one of the Rhuthun Warlocks, before my long weekend break to visit family and friends in North East Wales.

What a way to start a new century..........

It turns out it was by The Serpents, an Anglo-Welsh creative powerhouse consisting of 30-odd players, the whole project instigated by one Alan Holmes of Welsh underground group Ectogram and one Paul Simpson- a veteran of numerous Liverpool outfits over the past 25 years and spurred on by the Ochre and Ankst label men and countless other luminaries such as Echo & The Bunnyman maestro and well known experimentalist Will Sergeant, journalist Jon Savage, the duo of Rheinallt H. Rowlands (who once recorded a stirring version of Joy Division's 'New Dawn Fades' sung in Welsh... Excellent!), another veteran of various Liverpool groups in Henry Priestman, poet Zoe Skoulding, various Welsh electronic experimental units including the brilliantly monikered Anglesey Ambient Experiment and lots of other equally talented individuals.....
Oh Yeah- and the puzzle of the person known as Merlin Zol, who, for contractual reasons, had to have an alias- hmmmm- now I wonder who that could be???

With utter gusto, I soon purchased the CD.

As well as the great sounds on this album, there could be a book filled with all the tales of the recording sessions at the Bryn Derwen studio and their visits to the Din Lligwy Burial Chamber where they did some of the many location recordings as well as coming across the credited but un-named '3 Unknown Musicians' who left without giving them any contact information whatsoever (!?!).

In 1970/1, the great Aphrodite's Child fuelled their '666' album sessions whilst under the influence of the herbal intoxicant Sahlep; The Serpents apparently fuelled their sessions with a notorious local beverage named (ahem) Satan's Sperm!

The album opens with the sound of trickling water and we are dipped into the first track- "Flowers In The Cellar", which features some superb pedal steel guitar which sure does tug at those heart strings before crossing into "Bricweithiau Borth Wen", where we are treated to a pumping synth stomp with krautrock drums which subside and then return to give you that come back thrill- the first time I heard all this- I was salivating like a wild mare for two main reasons... 1) It's damn fine material and a great concept i.e. to get holed up in a commune atmosphere in such a magical setting and ...2) It erodes those corny images of Wales, those being the stigmata cliches which those media types throw up based on the south of the country, you know the kind of thing.... the usual Max Boyce and bloody "oggy oggy oggy" schtick..... do jellied eels mean anything in Lancashire or County Durham?.......exactly! nuff said!

Moving on through a track where a young boy speaks about jesus, we come to "And So The Ice Melts" with it's shimmering FX- laden female vocal which would not sound out of place on a Current 93 or Nurse With Wound album.
Then we get to the incredible "Seirff's Up", which opens with a rippling dulcimer and the dulcit tones of Jon Savage recounting the tale of the collective visiting the Din Lligwy Hut commune where they "...trod in sheepshit..." whilst looking for owls, then hearing an "unearthly noise" ..."when a creature came into view....about the size of a chicken" .....leading into a fascinating passage of nervous recorders and scraped metal, droning organs which unfurl a clutch of eerie yet beautiful singing voices.
The late, great and sadly missed Barrington "Ramases" Frost would have really identified with this material and the whole way this project was crafted.

"Dusted" is a smoothly crafted organ pattern with echoed marimbas which strangely reminded me of 'Fingerprince'-era Residents.
"Heulog" is where the Satan's Sperm really kicks in (!) and is a cute sing-a-long-a-delica snapshot featuring dribble synth and some duel guitar bliss-outs.

Next up is "Three Shards Of Time", as a careful-with-that-bass-guitar-line gives over to a husky Welsh maiden putting forward her wish list for the equinox.
"Map Of Itch" has more of that great pedal steel sound, I'd love to know who played what instrument on this album, there again, that's part of the 'pull' of this whole recording, not putting out any ego or bullshit, an experiment that did more than just entertain.

Onto "Sgrech Llyswen" and the vocals of Owain 'Oz' Wright from the aformentioned Rheinallt H. Rowlands who sounds like a psychedelic Bryn Terfel! The only criticism of this, is that this track is way too short, under a minute and a half... maybe the local 'brew' was kicking in too often.

"Tape Hiss" is the soundtrack to a lost psilocybin road movie, set around North Wales of course and you can imagine The Serpents entourage within a caravanserai of seven VW Camper Vans blazing along the A55, a sight I'd love to see.

"Lunatic Tester" begins with a shuffle of a drumkit carrying along treble-tremolo guitar and a flowing, rippling piano with more spoken words of oddness and delight.

"Dyn Gwiail" is an upbeat pop-chip and would be great to see performed live as it belies it's 12 bar flush.
"As The Sun Goes Down" is a great sitar wash and hypnotic violin and during it's 10+ minutes, it's time to reflect on what a damn fine collection of tracks you've had the pleasure of listening to here.

This album was probably made just as a 'bit of a whim' for it's creators, not realising what a marvellous body of work they had created.
It will be also, quite sadly, be one of the most unsung albums out there.

The artwork of this package is also fantastic, the way the image of the old instrument known as 'the serpent' is used to make up the 'S' in the groups name on the inside digipak cover.
The ancient oriental text which is beside the serpent covered skeleton and to top it all off of course, the Ochre label logo- a polo-necked letraset youth standing proud next to his reel-to-reel machine.

An experiment that certainly DID work but sadly got lost out there and never gained full recognition.

Here's the full list of players:

Dave Battersby - Laurence Connett - Mike Cross
Kev Fox - Gabrielle Gane - Laurie Gane - Nicholas Gane
Catalina Guirado - Maeyc Hewitt - Alan Holmes -
Gary Husband - Carys Jones - John Lawrence
Julie McGrail - Ann Mathews - Dafydd Morgan - Henry Priestman - Dafydd Rhys - Gruff Rhys - Rheinallt H. Rowlands - Jon Savage - Will Sergeant - Paul Simpson - Zoe Skoulding - Alan Slin - Dickie Straker - Ant Walker - Mike Ward - David Wrench - Kevin Wright - Merlin Zol
3 Unknown Musicians


Written by Tim Jones in august 2003

Sadly, Oz Wright from Reinhallt H. Rowlands was tragically killed in a road accident on the night of December 23rd 2005. Apparently, earlier on he had been watching a performance by Euros Childs at Hendre Hall near Bangor.

1 comment:

dave clarkson said...

Great review.

Good to see Jon Savage involved too.