Album Review: Hen Ogledd – Free Humans

[Domino/Weird World; 2020]

Hen Ogledd is the Celtic name from the Middle Ages for an area of Northern England and Southern Scotland, and, for many, just listening to a band with a name like that is an adventure in itself. But, on their second album, Free Humans, the band of Rhodri Davies, Dawn Bothwell, Sally Pilkington, and Richard Dawson are determined to use their four idiosyncratic musical minds to take listeners off on a voyage to much stranger and more unusual worlds.

The journey takes off without a hitch on opening track “Farewell”, us waving back to the land-lubbers as we set off with them in a space-travel-capable hot air balloon of polychromatic melodies and effervescent hooks. It doesn’t take long for the mission to find mischief though, as second track “Trouble” sends us headlong into family-friendly danger; the type “with a capital T” as we’re told in the indelible chorus, which will undoubtedly be stuck in your grey matter like a fish hook after a single listen. Ironically, Hen Ogledd seem to be warning of the dangers of this very thing on the hilarious and danceable following track “Earworm”, which has echoes of Genesis’ smash hit “Invisible Touch” – if Phil Collins were lobotomised.

Comparison between Free Humans and a sci-fi family adventure film abounds throughout. There are multiple fantastic characters popping up, like the retired space entertainer lost in memories on “Crimson Star”, and the titular Orion-dwelling monster on “Paul is 9Ft Tall (Marsh Gas)” who is voiced in comically macabre tones and melodramatic choral backing. Also afoot across the album are plenty of fun and games, especially found on the anti-gravity pop of “Space Golf”, where the soon-to-be-common adage “you cannot play golf in space” is the crux of an anthem about acceptance and banishing prejudices.

The parallel between a movie and this album is perhaps most obvious in its length: one hour and 20 minutes – which is fine for a flick, but is pushing it for a record. Of course, Hen Ogledd are never less than utterly charming, but it’s quite easy to point to songs that could have been expended for release in some other form further down the line. The biggest offender is the nonsense-filled “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song”, which seems to be the foursome getting up to shenanigans and actually trying to conceive of what a Nessy-penned hit would sound like – unfortunately, it seems like it was a lot more fun to record than it is to listen to.

Hopefully the less successful outings won’t put listeners off reaching Free Humans’ climactic couplet “Feral” and “Skinny Dippers”, a 15-minute double salvo where the quartet aim for something grander and darker. “Well done you who braved it through into the night,” they welcome to “Feral”, a track that hypnotically marches through eight minutes of cosmic desert filled with hallucinatory electronics and disembodied voices enclosing from all around. “Skinny Dippers” is the least sensual song ever to have that title, as it creates a world in panic with stabs of guitar and foreboding lyricism about the future. It’s an unexpectedly dark ending to an album that started out so sunnily – but one that is undoubtedly compelling (and still catchy as all heck).

Free Humans rewards the time investment, even if it does take a few unnecessary detours. It possesses so much pop ingenuity and sonic diversity that it has the potential to appeal to all sorts of people previously unfamiliar with the band, and it would be a shame if some of the filler material were to put off casual listeners. That being said, every track on Free Humans is well worth experiencing at least once – and most of them dozens of times – which is saying a lot for an 80-minute record of sci-fi synth-folk weirdness by a group with a name like Hen Ogledd.