Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #20 by Stephen McClurg
Gwenifer Raymond: Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain (2020)
Gwenifer Raymond’s approach to fingerstyle guitar has an almost punk aesthetic, something she’s called Welsh Primitive, referencing the term American Primitive used to describe guitarists who play music influenced by the Delta blues and other folk styles as interpreted through players like John Fahey and Robbie Basho. She can play delicately, but she’s more likely to play an ecstatic music of raw power, more ferocious than elegant. While she has a dynamic expressive range, sometimes I don’t know how her guitar stays together, much less in tune.
The opening track, “Incantation,” unexpectedly begins with percussion, generally a guitarist in this genre plays solo, some with fingerpicks and some without. Raymond opens with a two-note thumb bass pattern, but not the typical octave or root plus lower fifth intervals, and then starts weaving harmonic and melodic components into the established rhythmic theme.
If “Incantation” is a spell drawing the listener toward Garth Mountain, then “Hell for Certain” plunges the listener deep into its caverns. It has shades of Fahey in uptempo blues accents, harmonics, and a descending riff echoing the idea of a descent into Hell. It also owes as much to Black Sabbath as it does to Delta blues, these styles blended so much it comes out unique to Raymond.
“Worn Out Blues” features her slide playing and a thumb bass pattern unusually geared toward the upbeats rather than traditional downbeats. The repeated patterns and ornamentations are rich and hypnotic. At one point you can hear her play the bass part, an ornamented harmony and the slide melody simultaneously. She makes it sound easy.
“Marseilles Bunkhouse, 3am” also has a thumb pattern that shifts to upbeats, a technique she seems to be developing here. There is a haunted aspect to this tune, like walking through fog during the witching hour in an unfamiliar place, full of dark shapes, where one cannot make out the landscape. Images of the Marseilles Tarot Deck come to mind in a music combining elements of Delta blues with European dance and classical styles, an approach that may relate to the mix of cultures the city is known for.
Despite the altered tuning, there are several phrases on “Gwead am Gwead” that would sit easily on a Slayer album, maybe as Seasons In the Abyss outtakes. It’s almost a medieval acoustic metal song in three, a soundtrack less for a Renaissance fair and more for a sacrifice or duel. After all, the title translates to “Blood for Blood.” There are sections of dark, sweet dissonances, slivers of melody, and tinges of blues.
The album ends with the title track, which uses harmonics that I like to think of as representing the strange lights over the Welsh burial mound. Garth Mountain has a mythology perfect for the album, and as a bonus is a site of several UFO sightings.
As the pandemic progresses, I enjoy seeing musicians play online, but I have also felt a loss at not hearing live music. The first album premiere I watched was Raymond’s, a live performance of the entire album. It was a thrill, but it also reminded me of how much I miss being in the room as the music happens. I wouldn’t complain if Raymond also performed the first live show I get to see post-pandemic.
Gwenifer Raymond’s Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain is available through Tompkins Square.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.