(Cambrian Records, out now)
Review by Andy Childs
Despite the significant shift in the way we listen to and ‘consume’ music nowadays, one thing has remained unalterable – the sheer joy and thrill of ‘discovering’ a brilliant new artist or record that re-affirms your faith in music, and gives you the rush of pleasure and satisfaction that propels you to want to tell the whole world. This new guitar and string trio masterpiece from Toby Hay is one such record.
At the moment, it seems, there’s not an awful lot to discover about Toby Hay except that he’s Welsh, lives in Rhayader, is a self-taught and quite exceptional guitarist, and has been touring the country extensively in the last couple of years. His website is biographically discreet and instead encourages us to listen to The Gathering. And so we should.
The inspiration behind all of the compositions here is very much rooted in the landscape and history of Hay’s Welsh locality, and the music resonates with the dramatic sweep of cherished countryside and the deep-rootedness of its generations of inhabitants. His sense of melody is simple, refined, and striking, and his tunes form the bedrock around which his singular guitar style adds chiming, multi-layered texture, with strings contributing beautiful, understated embellishment.
The Gathering achieves instant lift-off with ‘Mayfair at Rhayader 1927’, a lovely, wistful melody which evokes a shared memory of Hay’s hometown one spring day long ago – a memory of celebration and innocence, captured wonderfully on film and used as the accompanying video.
Hay’s playing is totally in tune with the drama of the scenes he’s conjuring up. On ‘The Fly Fisherman and The Trout’, a signature tune for this website if ever I heard one, his melody leaps and twists like the fish desperately evading the fisherman’s grasp. It builds in intensity as the trout is almost landed, but then the fish escapes, and the river and the music flow on. Wonderful.
‘Claerwen’ is another beautiful, contemplative tune that tells of solitude and age, and ‘Black Brook’ is a small gem “played on an old arch-top guitar from the 1930s that seems to have music already in it”.
These mentioned are but half of the eight songs here, all of which are, in their own way, instantly memorable. The employment of violin, viola, cello and double bass throughout is inspired, and often lends the music an air of melancholy and emotional emphasis that frequently takes the breath away.
In closing, I must mention the illustrative sleeve notes and the heartfelt endorsement from Robert Macfarlane no less. He talks about the illocutionary quality that Hay’s tunes have – “the ability to summon things into being, or bring pasts back to life” – with particular reference to ‘Starlings’, a track that, in its complex, sweeping, effortless choreography, seems to mimic the murmurations of those amazing birds.
Hay’s panoramic, life-enhancing music has the awe-inspiring and unfathomable wonder of a murmuration.
Buy a copy of The Gathering directly from Toby’s Bandcamp page. Listen there too, or on Spotify.
Toby appears as special guest to Marisa Anderson at two Caught by the River shows this coming November: Monday the 6th at The Social in London, and Tuesday the 7th in Bristol.
Andy Childs on Caught by the River/on Twitter