About four million years ago I enjoyed fairly regular correspondence with a Welsh gentlemen who would compile and send me cassettes of obscure music from the land of his fathers, Pobol y Cwm, and Max Boyce, and in many cases music of such distinct character as to shame me into never again making the association of Cymru with such lazy reference points as I've given here - apart from just now. It seemed there was a thriving scene of artists whose preference for the Welsh language had excluded them from coverage in the mainstream music papers, this being the scene which, I suppose, eventually yielded the likes of Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Catatonia and others. I was never that fussed by any of these more recent acts. Even being able to understand the words - helpfully sung in English - they mostly struck me as generally unremarkable in comparison with Plant Bach Ofnus, Traddodiad Ofnus, and the mighty force of Datblygu, all of whom sounded more interesting regardless of songs being sung in a language I couldn't understand.
Having now lived with these two Datblygu albums for nearly twenty years - here assembled on a single compact disc - I'd now go further than describing them as merely interesting. In fact I have a hunch that Datblygu may have been the greatest band of all time by any definition that matters, at least in so much as that there is no conceivable way in which these thirty-two songs could be improved; and I'm aware that this will sound like hyperbole.
To start at what may resemble a beginning for some, Datblygu's David Edwards singing in Welsh was never intended as an angle or a novelty, and most of what he has said on the subject has tended to highlight the absurdity of asking a man why he chooses to sing in his own native tongue, and whether or not such a choice represents some sort of militant stance.
Musically speaking, Datblygu sounded oddly well suited to those crappy cassettes I once received through the post, Woolworths or Boots or Memorex with felt-tipped pen scribbled across crumpled inlay cards. This isn't meant to be an insult so much as an acknowledgement of their seemingly unapologetic attitude to recording - Bontempi organs, cheap drum machines, guitars sounding like they might benefit from a hasty restringing: it's not that it sounds ramshackle so much as that they were working to a budget of about sixty quid, so it's kind of basic without being in any sense lo-fi; and yet what the three individuals involved did with that sound was astonishing. The usual comparison is of Datblygu being a Welsh version of the Fall in reference to a certain loose quality, but it's not a great comparison, and you might just as well throw Wire or Einstürzende Neubauten into the pot. Einstürzende Neubauten might seem like a lazy reference to another band singing songs in languages besides English, but there's something in their forging music from ruggedly atonal sources, which is sort of what Datblygu do aside from the detail of the sources actually being musical instruments. Sometimes it's a horrible detuned racket, like that of Pabel Len until the point at which those twanging upper strings come in and it all sounds momentarily and paradoxically beautiful. At other times it's electropop, or it's pensive country and western - and I mean the real stuff with the twanging and the slide guitar as enjoyed by old codgers in trucks rather than Mojo readers recently moving on from Nirvana - or it's Bertolt Brecht, the Residents, children's novelty records, and despite the range, it always takes a couple of moments before you're able to tell just what it is that they're doing differently.
It's hard to really pinpoint what's so great about these songs. Technically they're kind of basic in places, nothing too fancy, occasionally chaotic; and yet even without any clear idea of subject given that my understanding of Welsh is limited at best, the emotional force is astonishing, at least enough to bring one close to tears under certain circumstances. These are generally not what you would call happy songs, although neither are they entirely depressive, ranging from spiky, angry, and sardonic to quietly thoughtful without incurring schizophrenia; and like the band, the songs are uncompromising and ruthlessly honest, because even when you can't understand what's being said, you can just tell by the tone.