Caught by the River

New Music For The 12-String Guitar

Andy Childs | 2nd February 2020

Commissioned by The state51 Conspiracy, Roger Bucknall of Flyde Guitars made a custom 12-string, the ‘Red Kite’, for Toby Hay. Toby then recorded a a live album, New Music For The 12-String Guitar, over the course of two days. Andy Childs reviews.

I have had the pleasure of listening to Toby Hay’s new album, his fourth, for several weeks now and I am still hearing new things with every play. It’s a many-splendoured piece of work, but perhaps most obviously it’s a work of sonic exploration and love for a remarkable instrument. The extent to which music has been constantly shaped by the way instruments, and the guitar in particular, have been refined and developed is maybe self-evident but it’s still a thrill to hear a great musician exult in the freedom and endless possibilities that an innovative and superbly-crafted tool can afford them. The concept for this record was suggested by The state51 Conspiracy record label and involved asking the legendary Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars to custom-build a guitar for Toby Hay to write and record music for. The resultant ‘Red Kite’ 12-string is made from Macassar Ebony and Engelmann Spruce and is set up to play in Hay’s unique tunings. The range and tone of sound is, as you might imagine, quite stunning – deep, clean, resonant, rich and sparkling. It sounds amazing when Hay just strums it and you can tell it’s a joy for him to play. He takes obvious delight in stretching out, exploring the qualities that the combination of materials and craftsmanship has produced. Many of the tracks here have the feel of exploratory semi-improvisation and you can almost sense the degree revelation that comes with each new phrase and tune.

Recorded over two days in the Wood Room at Real World Studios, everying here is, remarkably, a live performance. No editing or overdubs. Just the sound of an already-accomplished guitarist probing, experimenting, developing. Each track gets a brief note that loosely defines its inspiration or origin and the natural world and sense of place looms large in the music. The opening track, ‘Morning Song’ (“a song for the sunrise”) is just that – chiming bright and hopeful, bursting with promise. And as the album progresses we hear music inspired by Hay’s native Wales – the low, sonorous, bluesy melody of ‘Merlod Mynydd’ (“an ode to the wild ponies of Wales”), the beautiful, folky ‘Cynefin’ (“home”) and ‘Happy As A Sandboy’ which could easily be mistaken for a traditional, standard folk melody. My favourite instrumental music has always been transportive – taking me to places real and imagined – and this album is rich in the sort of melodies and soundscapes that conjure up visions, almost exclusively rural, of places the feeling for which is enhanced by this suggestive, expansive music. ‘Dead Horse Point’ (“high desert and canyon, and the ghosts of forgotten horses”) is the soundtrack to a fleeting, wide-eyed mirage of the old west. The seemingly semi-improvised ‘The Last Mountain Hare’ is a lament for places no longer wild (“no more wonder, moonlight and magic”). And ‘The Bird And The Waterfall’, inspired by watching a Dipper on the banks of a stream in the grounds of the studio, recreates a moment and place through ringing, rippling textures that leaves you wanting to go back for more. Each time I listen to these twelve tracks though I hear a new phrase, a different melody that suggests a different mood, an alternate vision. It’s a sound-shifting record in a very positive way and completely captures the excitement and revelation of genuinely new music being made.

New Music For The 12 String Guitar has a very simple, understated front cover with 12 guitar strings drawn diagonally across a plain black background with just the album title printed and no mention of the artist, as if to give the instrument top-billing. If this is the case then Toby Hay is unduly modest for it is undoubtedly his talent and imagination that has brought this guitar to life and allowed it to sing in such an ecstatic, vibrant manner. 


New Music For The 12-String Guitar is available here on CD and vinyl. You can sign up to Toby Hay’s mailing list here.