Wales: So “Cool Cymru” Part II

In this three-part series, Iain Ellis traces the recent history of rock music in Wales. Part I addresses the so-called “Cool Cymru” explosion of the mid-to-late-’90s. Part II looks at the diversity of music produced in Wales during the 2000s. Part III critically profiles some recent Welsh wits from the current music scene.

“Everyday when I wake up I thank the Lord I’m Welsh,” sang Cerys Matthews of Catatonia on the title track of their 1998 album, International Velvet. Such a sentiment — even accepting its possible ironic quotient — reflected a feeling of the time amongst many upcoming Welsh acts that band identity should be intimately tied to national identity. Bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Catatonia, despite arriving in the ’90s, signified the first wave of Welsh rock, a proud movement sometimes referred to (some would say disparagingly) as “Cool Cymru”.

Known less by common genre than by common geography, the “Cool Cymru” bands practiced a quiet form of cultural patriotism, one most assertively epitomized by their willingness to integrate Welsh language songs into their respective repertoires. Such songs had featured in the country’s folk and choral traditions, but few Welsh rock bands had sung in Welsh, recognizing that it was a formula for self-imposed obscurity and commercial suicide.

While Super Furry Animals had enjoyed some success with their Welsh language songs, these were received more in the spirit of novelty quirks than as prescient primers for a future “Welsh” rock phenomenon. English comedians French and Saunders had jumped upon the novelty humor aspect when they performed a televised parody of Catatonia, Dawn French slurring through the lyrics of a faux-nationalistic song called “Cymru Pride” in an incomprehensible Welsh accent. By the end of the ’90s, the Welsh language/pronounced accent rock experiment had largely returned to the hills and valleys of the North-West counties from whence they had come.

Meanwhile, in the more urban South, the Welsh rock naissance continued unabated into the next decade. Located around Cardiff and nearby Newport, the new bands benefited greatly from the infrastructure that the “Cool Cymru” bands had previously established. Cardiff in 2000 provided aspiring artists a network of recording studios, rehearsal spaces, record labels, venues, and management. A decade prior it had offered little more than a University campus to perform at and Spillers (the world’s oldest record store) to buy records at.

Furthermore, the Cardiff scene of the naughties did not need to start anew; it was consolidated by the continuing presence of many of the bands that had attained success there before. Those bands, Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, and Super Furry Animals, are still successful today and always include homecoming shows on their international tours. Their presence gives credibility and surer foundations to the ever-strengthening Welsh rock scene.

Because of its brief history and openness to broad influences, Wales today, as in yesteryears, still lacks a defining sound or genre. Cardiff remains a scene of scenes, where multiple styles and approaches co-exist. Devoid of their own rock traditions, Welsh bands have learned to adopt and adapt, to fuse and transform pre-existing styles into their own. Unlike in London, New York, or Los Angeles, Cardiff bands are not under the constant scrutiny of intrusive big labels and trend-setters. Thus, they are not forced into genre boxes or pressured to satisfy pre-determined demographics.

Instead, Welsh bands tend to arrive the old-fashioned way, by establishing a passionate local fan base and learning their craft on the club and pub circuits. This “paying your dues” convention maybe explains why bands like Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers have endured and matured over the decades, while many London bands are marketed to boom and bust with short shelf lives.

Less beholden to British traditions than the more established rock cultures of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Welsh bands are as likely to be influenced by US music as by that coming from the UK. Indeed, Cardiff is sometimes called the “New Seattle” due to its prevalence of (post-)grunge bands.

Punk-metal (in all its infinite sub-forms) is perhaps the most dominating genre of modern Welsh music, with screamo and metalcore particularly preponderant. Mclusky were trailblazers in this department; their Steve Albini-produced noise-core had far more in common with American acts like Nirvana and Big Black than with any British acts. Skindred, led by Benji Webbe, have also been highly influential on the modern metal sounds of South Wales. Their “ragga metal” fusion, while inspired by Bad Brains, has taken the genre into uncharted and indeterminate territory.

Even Stereophonics, the pride of Cwmamon, Wales, employ a metal-leaning style of alt rock that has its roots more in American grunge than in any British genres. These bands have been responsible for a paradigm shift in modern Welsh rock: bands no longer feel that they have to wear their Welshness on their sleeves, nor do they feel any obligation or need to attach themselves to developments going on in England.

At the forefront of Cardiff’s hard rock scene today are Bullet for My Valentine, Funeral for a Friend, and Lostprophets. Weaned more on Metallica than on home-town heroes Budgie, these metal-styled bands have become international success stories in recent years, commonly charting high in the US as well as in the UK. Each also has the distinction of earning Kerrang!’s “Best Newcomer” award when Welsh bands claimed it three times over a four year span (2001-2005).

Besides hard rock, Wales has also produced some significant pop music in recent years. In a tradition that gave the world Mary Hopkin, Shirley Bassey, and Charlotte Church, Duffy is the latest songbird to represent Wales on the world stage. The best-selling UK artist of 2008, her Rockferry album showcases a singing style as soulful as — and significantly more hip than — any of her renowned predecessors.

Wales is also developing its own indie pop tradition through People in Planes, the Poppies, the Automatic, and Los Campesinos! The latter have become the leading lights in this field and will be covered more comprehensively in Part III of this column. The Automatic, too, have emerged as indie pop darlings of the ’00s, their jagged guitar nuggets earning them the stamp of approval of NME, while their single “Monster” penetrated the upper echelons of the UK charts in 2006.

Even hip-hop has found a home in this nation where 96 percent of its residents are white. Though it’s unlikely that you will be seeing any Welsh rappers sharing the stage with Jay Z or 50 Cent in the foreseeable future, some Welsh wits have adopted and adapted the genre in a comedic capacity. The most successful exponents, Goldie Lookin Chain, will be profiled in Part III; however, they are just one group of many young upstarts using rap as an ironic vehicle to wryly represent the rather un-boast-worthy lives of many Welsh youths. Some, like Y Diwygiad, Hoax Emcee, and Dybl-L, rap in the mother tongue, giving their songs a whimsical, incongruous quality, while others like Dead Residents, Ralph Rip Shit, and Goldie Lookin Chain, draw attention to the absurdity of their endeavors by comically juxtaposing the conventions of boasts and bling against the realities of their mundane lives.

Cool Cymru is dead; long live Welsh rock. This appears to be the principle upon which modern music in Wales is based. From genres as varied as metal, punk, indie pop, hip-hop, folk, and electronica, a steady stream of eclectic music courses through and out of Wales today. No longer one artist wonders on the charts, nor burdened by the expectations of “representing” their country of origin, Welsh acts of today operate as they please. The result is a vibrant music culture unencumbered by a history or tradition, but one currently in the business of crafting its own.

Stay tuned for Part III, which will profile some of the humorists of recent Welsh rock music.