Bridging genres can be a messy affair. Sometimes it feels like an artist just throws in a few new bells and whistles for the hell of it, rather than trying to integrate it fully into the sound that they’ve already established. Too many new elements and music that once had its own solid identity can become the victim of a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation.
Sometimes that experimentation can pay off in spades. That’s the case on Several Wolves, the new album from the Welsh duo comprised of Angharad Van Rijswijk and Owain Gwilym, also known as Trwbador. Since the start of their career in 2010, Trwbador have made a name for themselves by mixing genres that usually go together like oil and water. As in, not at all. They meld together dreamy folk and glitchy electronica, and the end product is nothing short of beautiful. Several Wolves is their most fully realized effort to bridge the gap between their two musical identities, and by and large, they pull it off with nary a hitch along the way.
The greatest thing that Trwbador have pulled off with this album is the masterful way they toe the line between folk and electronica. Their skeleton might be delicate, ethereal folk, all spidery acoustic strings and arpeggiated sweeping harps, but the muscles that support that frame and give it life come from the pulsing dance beats and prismatic synths.
At first listen, there are some songs that seem to fall firmly on one side or the other. Take album closer “Love and Folly”. It starts as a purely indie folk track, from the acoustic guitar to the airy vocals, but halfway through, a whole new dimension is introduced via the effervescent synths that pop in for a few seconds. It’s a small addition, but it takes what would otherwise be just another carefree folk song and turns it into something much more buoyant.
A lot of the tracks are like that; they start off resolutely in one world, and just when you think you’ve got their genre firmly pinned down, some new element is introduced to totally change the track. In the end, nearly every track is an amalgamation of the two genres. Sometimes that mix tips more strongly in one direction and sometimes it’s a more even blend, but either way, the result is an avant-garde hybrid that’s hypnotic.
Though the instrumentals carry the bulk of Trwbador’s balancing act, Van Rijswijk’s vocals are a large part of that success, too. Her fragile soprano is equally suited to both folk and electronica. It’s airy enough both to twine with the acoustic guitar and harp of the former and to contrast perfectly with the heavier, pulsing dance beats of the latter. “Start Your Car” is a perfect example of that. Its pulsating drum machine beats are the hallmarks of any good dance track, but it’s Van Rijswijk’s otherworldly vocals that provide the perfect complement. “Take me to a place where love still lives”, she implores, and her voice is so impassioned and yearning that you can’t help but want to join her.
There are two real standouts on this album. One is “Breakthrough”, which features London-based rapper ESSA. If anything, adding yet another element to Trwbador’s already heady mix sounds like it’d make an epic mess. Instead, “Breakthrough” – true to its name – is fantastic. ESSA’s perfectly melodic rap verse provides a perfect equalizer to mellow out the track’s spidery harps and throbbing bass. You’d never think that “hip-hop harp” could be a sub-genre, but in “Breakthrough”, it’s a match made in heaven.
The lyrics, especially, are some of the album’s best. “The sounds of the harps, sweet / Temper that with pound of a heartbeat / And my heart leaps / All the way up to sharp peaks”, ESSA ruminates. It’s a sentiment that sums up Several Wolves as a whole: emotive, introspective lyrics blended together with dynamic, surprising instrumentals.
The other game-changer on Several Wolves is “CO2”. To put it lightly, this track is just plain weird…and I mean that as a compliment. The first half is all glitchy synths and sparse birdsong. (Yes, really.) It’s a sort of synth-gilded lullaby, but halfway through the track’s seven minutes, it morphs into a totally different animal. Gone is that idyllic, quiet electronica, and in its place erupts a jagged, industrial stomper of a track that shows that Trwabdor has a dark and brash flipside to all those bubbly synth/harp hybrids.
Despite the flashes of some truly great music, there are still moments on Several Wolves that feel like Trwbador haven’t pushed themselves quite far enough. “Longing”, for example, starts off with a great groove that sounds like it’d be right at home on the dance floor, and the male and female vocals twine around each other as they both lament over and over that “longing is all I really feel, but my life is complete”.
It’s a great foundation, but it never feels like the song truly reaches its full potential. You keep waiting for the song to blossom into something more complex and for the lyrics to deepen and explain that feeling of missing something when it feels like we’ve already got everything in place. A minute from the track’s ending, something changes and it feels like that lyrical and instrumental epiphany has finally been reached…but no, that same original beat with the same original refrain returns. There’s no growth or development, even though the groundwork is perfectly laid for it. Those moments, though, are few and far between.
As a whole, Several Wolves is the product of immense musical creativity. It’s an avant-garde blend of two genres that rarely get combined, and the end product is a fantastic experiment that succeeds in branching out and bridging the gap between totally different worlds. So long as Trwbador’s involved, folk and electronica have never fit more perfectly together.