Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci are often tagged as a Britpop band, mainly, it seems, because they play a sometimes quirky brand of indie fare that happened to come to the attention of English listeners during the '90s amid the Cool Britannia hype and hoopla . . . [however the] sound of GZM clearly challenged the Englishness that dominated Britpop and questioned the terms of its urban, largely male, rock hegemony.
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci are often tagged as a Britpop band, mainly, it seems, because they play a sometimes quirky brand of indie fare that happened to come to the attention of English listeners during the '90s amid the Cool Britannia hype and hoopla.
My appraisal would be quite different, emphasizing the ways that the sound of GZM clearly challenged the Englishness that dominated Britpop and questioned the terms of its urban, largely male, rock hegemony. And while GZM had little in common with their '90s contemporaries in England, they also stood apart from many of their fellow Welsh bands of the period, pursuing an understated, progressive- and psychedelically nuanced folk-pop, as opposed to the traditional rockism (with stadium pretensions) cranked out by some of their peers.
So-called Britpop claimed an inclusiveness toward all Britain; one of its enduring images remains Noel Gallagher's Union Jack-adorned Epiphone guitar. However, Britpop was always inextricably linked with a strong sense of Englishness, and a particularly reductive variant thereof.
Musically speaking, Britpop had a strong English accent, its sounds drawing on an array of homegrown (white male) sources -- from the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Small Faces, to Roxy Music, T-Rex, and David Bowie, among others. For many of the major Britpop players, the aesthetic also hinged on an ironic relationship with post-war English pop culture. This manifested itself in a playful nostalgia for a parochial Little England and a New Laddish, urban, low-brow posturing, albeit always tempered with a knowing sophistication. (Oasis may be the exception here, as their low- and mono-brow laddishness appeared sincere and authentic.)
And at the material level, Britpop was business as usual: English urban centers remained the happening loci of Cool Britannia -- the place to be noticed and the place to score a major label contract.
But then, in the mid-'90s, another flag was being waved. Wales' Manic Street Preachers led the first serious rock music charge ever across the Severn Bridge to contest the very English identity of Cool Britannia. The Manics' articulation of their Welshness seemed chiefly symbolic, while their sound was that of non-specific student angst set to a hybrid of the Clash and Guns N' Roses. On their heels came the likes of the Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, the 60 Ft. Dolls, and the Stereophonics, among others. The press soon began to talk excitedly about Cool Cymru.
The bands following in the footsteps of the Manics foregrounded their ethnicity to differing degrees. The lyrical focus of the Stereophonics was often local -- and therefore non-English -- although generic rock arrangements elevated their songs to the same stadium-ready heights as those of some of their English counterparts. Catatonia's "International Velvet" -- sung in Welsh and featuring the English refrain, "Every day when I wake up I thank the Lord I'm Welsh" -- as well as their dissing of the UK capital on "Londinium" made more obvious statements.
The Super Furry Animals flirted more explicitly with nationalism. Singer Gruff Rhys spoke in support of devolution on the BBC's Newsnight in 1998 and on record the band accentuated its cultural difference by singing more extensively in Welsh than many of its high-profile compatriots. A 1995 EP was given the uncompromising title -- for non Welsh speakers at least -- Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (In Space) and 2000's Mwng became the biggest selling entirely Welsh-language album.
While SFA were perhaps the most sonically adventurous, blending everything from psychedelia to electronic grooves ("we'd rather listen to techno than the Kinks", Rhys once observed, perhaps taking a swipe at Britpop's Ray Davies fascination), the other major Welsh bands of the '90s operated pretty much within the same traditional rock idiom as their English peers.
Of course, none of the above were invited to Tony Blair's election-victory cocktail party at 10 Downing Street on July 30th 1997. Blair -- in his shallow attempts to court younger voters -- had appropriated Britpop as the soundtrack to Labour's historic defeat of the Tories, yet the only Britpop star to be honored with an invitation was Noel Gallagher.
Also absent were Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, who have never been given to anthemic posturing or political sloganeering.
Many of their contemporaries formed bands in the '90s but GZM had begun playing together whilst at high school in Carmarthen in the late-'80s. They initially signed to the Welsh indie label Ankst (an early home to the Super Furry Animals) and recorded three albums: Patio (1992), Tatay (1994), and Bwyd Time (1995). GZM moved on to Mercury for Barafundle (1997) and Gorky 5 (1998), before being dropped. They were subsequently picked up by Mantra/Beggars and have since released Spanish Dance Troupe (1999), the mini-album The Blue Trees in 2000, and the present CD.
Although GZM don't indulge in nationalist rhetoric, they've always conveyed a very distinctive sense of place in their music. To listen to them is to cross into what The Guardian's Tom Cox once called "Gorkyworld", a land of "rolling hills surmounted by bearded wizards playing flutes, schoolbound children dropping lunchboxes as they hurdle streams, picnics on windswept beaches, and mystical medieval roots". Amid a climate of regionalism and nationalism and debates over devolution toward the end of the '90s, "Gorkyworld" might have prompted some nationalist purists to ask if the landscape of the group's songs represented an authentic Wales. Nevertheless, questions of that nature betray a reductive understanding of national identity, as well as the ways in which it can be expressed.
The band's sound is rooted in Wales, but it also displays a connectedness with other places and times. "Gorkyworld" derives not only from the cultural and musical traditions of the band's own environment -- and its language -- but from diverse points in the English folk tradition, '70s progressive rock of the Canterbury scene, Appalachian folk, early English psychedelia, American country music, and the very different Southern Californias of the Beach Boys and, say, Captain Beefheart.
GZM's sense of identity, belonging, and place is bound up with a crossing of borders but, of course, it never ceases to be Welsh. Rather, the Welshness articulated through their music accommodates heterogeneity and is defined by much more than language, a specific agenda, or fixed cultural referents.
How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart further underscores how brilliantly anomalous and unfashionably brilliant GZM are. On this new release the band continues to move in the more simple folk-pop direction that has characterized a fair amount of its work over the last two years. As on Spanish Dance Troupe and The Blue Trees, the arrangements are mainly acoustic and the prog component -- heard most recently on "Foot and Mouth '68" (from The Blue Trees) -- appears to have been shelved for the time being.
Still intact, and perhaps stronger than ever, is the affective resonance of GZM's music. Instead of stirring up the emotions with fist-pumping anthems, GZM take a more nuanced and thoughtful approach. The immense emotive power of their music has always been rooted in its ability to create a warm, universally recognizable space of nostalgia for listeners where things past are remembered and their ephemeral nature is quietly contemplated. That space may be tinged with the sad ache of the irrecoverable, but it's never maudlin or morose. As its title suggests, this album finds GZM in a particularly nostalgic moment, and that mood is beautifully captured by the group's fragile, idyllic, often breezy folk-pop.
Whereas numbers like the mini-epic "Christina" comprise expanded arrangements involving a string octet, distinct sections, and changing tempos, GZM are at their most compelling -- to these ears anyway -- when they travel more minimal paths. Exemplary in that regard are the sparse, mournful "Dead-Aid", with its melancholy violin courtesy of Megan Childs, and "How I Long", which -- mostly because of Euros Childs' piano melody -- has a beautiful, austere hymnal feel to it, much like previous instant classics such as "The Humming Song" and "Face Like Summer". No less effective is the simple country ballad "Honeymoon with You", thanks to the interplay of Gorwel Owen's Hammond and Megan Childs' violin.
Euros Childs occupies himself with lead vocal duties through most of this album, but guitarist Richard James takes over on a couple of tracks. Featuring harp flourishes and guiro, which make it a true cultural encounter, "Stood on Gold" (the first single) is graced with James' slightly softer pipes. James is also at the vocal helm for the album's finest cut, "These Winds Are in My Heart", a beautiful ballad with a sea-faring lilt to it that's enhanced by the incorporation of a wheezing squeeze box.
No GZM album would be complete without a playful moment, and the band treats listeners to two of them on this release: the bubbly "Can Megan", which is buoyed with horns and a happy, head-bobbing mid-'70s pop groove, and the equally upbeat "Her Hair Hangs Long", which proceeds to rock moderately hard in a "Poodle Rockin'" sort of way toward the end.
Additionally, GZM sustain the off-kilter sensibility that has threaded throughout their music over the years. Here, this comes in the shape of "Where Does Yer Go Now?" on which pedal steel, warped harpsichord, harmonium, moog, and Appalachian plucking conspire to produce a slight quirkiness, albeit one that's ultimately eclipsed by a big, uplifting, string conclusion.
It's only after several listens that you realize how deeply this album has sunk its hooks into you. That's not to say that it's without substance or that it's background music, as some cynics are suggesting. Rather, this has to do with the fact that GZM have never gone for the obvious, simple sound. Instead, they craft arrangements whose ornate, lovingly woven textures draw listeners in slowly and subtly.
How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart is Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's most mature and fully realized album thus far. It's the work of a band that predated, exceeded, and outlived all the empty hyperbole of Britpop. What's more, it continues to highlight the ethnocentric shortcomings of that once fashionable label.