I’ve written before about the merits of Photophob, in my review of his atmospheric beauty, Winter Forest Drones, and while that was a masterpiece of hypnotic ambience, I feel that this artist is most in his element when producing a very different kind of music: electronic funk. I’m not talking Skrillex or Deadmau5 here, or even Daft Punk. No, the one artist who came to my mind more than anything else while listening to Cymru was music legend Herbie Hancock, and specifically Head Hunters and Thrust.
But first, some backstory …
My childhood music education was … erratic. On one hand, my dad was into classic rock. Pink Floyd, Kansas, The Who, whatever. But on the other hand, I had been taught that all classic rock except for Keith Green was evil (I do still love me some Keith though, don’t get me wrong). And on still another hand, my older brothers, to whom I looked up more than anyone, were listening to things like Creed and No Doubt. I was very confused about music as a kid; I knew the Weird Al version of most hit songs without actually knowing the songs they were parodying. (Seriously, I knew “The Saga Begins” long before I’d ever heard “American Pie.”)
All that changed very quickly, one fateful night when I was a lad of 13 or 14. At this point, I had my very own Walkman CD player, so I was a bit more in control of what I listened to; I was spending my time searching the house for discarded albums that my brothers had finished listening to, which yielded … mixed results. I was slowly exploring every nook and cranny of the Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall CDs I had managed to salvage, when I came across an album with the coolest-looking cover I’d ever seen, just lying out in the open for anyone to take! The album was Herbie Hancock’s Thrust, and that night, as I prepared to go to sleep, I put on my headphones, popped the disc into my Walkman, and proceeded to not get even a second of sleep that night.
That was my introduction to jazz, funk, and Herbie Hancock all at once. I had never imagined rhythms like the ones I heard that night. To this day, listening to Thrust for the first time is probably the most blown my mind has ever been. At the time, I was too dazed to really sit and analyze what made the album so great, but now in the twilight years of my early twenties, I’m able to look back with an unbiased and absolutely objective gaze, and I’ve realized the one aspect that made the entire work so great: minimalism. The first track begins with one instrument, repeating one rhythm; and slowly, over the next four minutes, every other band member comes in with their own little snatch of music on their own instrument. And so funk is born.
In Cymru, Photophob experiments with a kind of minimalism not unlike that of Herbie Hancock, and in so doing he’s made what is absolutely my favorite independent album of 2013. Not only does Cymru do every bit as much for me as Daft Punk’s same-year opus Random Access Memories (love that album), but it also manages to do so in a mere 23 minutes! Setting aside for a moment any pretense of analysis or understanding, Cymru is beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most easy-to-listen-to electronic albums I’ve ever heard.
Ok, now back to the pretense of analysis.
When people hear the word “minimalism,” or when they view minimalist art, a common mistake is the assumption that the technique was used simply because the artist didn’t have enough to say. The reality is that far more often, an artist feels the need to fill a page with as many lines and shapes as possible because he feels that he hasn’t said enough. A truly artistic mind knows when a few stark notes are more than enough. Building a song phrase by phrase, section by section, the way that Photophob does (especially with track 1, “Beautiful Flowers”)—it makes the listener feel as though they’re privy to some private corner of the creative process, rarely seen by any other than the artist. As we listen to music in this way, it becomes clear that a song, by itself, is not a work of art. Only the creation of the song is artistic, and it’s only when we understand what went into that creation that we can fully appreciate a piece of music or a book or a painting for its artistic merits.
… Dude … like, whoa …
Ok, all half-baked philosophy aside, I’m gonna just tell you about this album, because you need to check it out, like, pronto.
Cymru is technically seven tracks long, but really only four of those tracks are actual songs; the other three act as a sort of cushion between the tunes, preparing you mentally for the next one. The opening track I’ve already talked about a bit; very minimalistic and funky, with a great, summery vibe.
Track 3 (“Myth”) is probably my favorite song on the album. I’m not sure what the inspiration was for it, or if there was an inspiration, but the title of the song goes perfectly with the melody (which doesn’t actually pop up until around 1:17 or so). It calls to mind some ancient legendary being, but re-imagined via some N64 version of Mortal Kombat. It’s a fantastic piece of music, again featuring a very engaging rhythm, and with an awesome background harmony of deep synthesizers.
“Protecting the Dead” is track 5 on the album, and it carries on with a similar vibe as “Myth,” only shorter and much more earnest. There’s a great little riff that’s repeated throughout most of the song, with two types of synth noise basically trading phrases; what makes this song interesting is what’s going on in the background the whole time. Plenty of great sweeping harmonies rising and falling, and every minute or so there’s a little break and the voice of (apparently) a female reporter emerges, describing (again, apparently) some ancient ruins.
The final track on the album is “You and Me Today,” the only song with a discernible vocal part. Again, it starts out very strong and continues in a similar fashion, combining electro-funk with a very slow and atmospheric chill, to great effect. The singing begins around the 2:30 mark, and it essentially chimes in like any other instrument, adding it’s own specific phrase which is repeated once or twice more before the end. A very beautiful song.
It’s not hard to tell what was on Herwig Holzmann’s mind during the making of this record. It’s called “Cymru,” which means “Wales” in Welsh. The cover features Wales’ iconic dragon on top of waves crashing on an ancient rocky shore. It’s a very contemporary album in one way, but its roots lie in the myth and magic of ancient days. The feeling of some old and beautiful world is suffused throughout the entire album, including the name, the cover art and the names of each song. Although Holzmann is a native of Austria, here he has his focus on Wales. Specifically, the Wales of ancient times, when druids ruled through the power of fear, terrifying tales were spread of monsters and evil wizards, and the countryside was a beautiful landscape of flowers and grass, unspoiled by the smog and soot of the industrial age to come.
In short, Photophob’s latest effort is his best work to date, in this writer’s opinion, and it deserves 23 minutes of your undivided attention.
Ed Note: We’ve talked about Herwig Holzmann a lot here at Critical Masses, and we do indeed love his work. Check out our reviews of these albums as well: