Toby Hay – New Music for the 12-String Guitar
The state51 Conspiracy – November 1, 2019
The red kite has become something of a totem bird for the environmental movement in the UK, a flagship species in the process known since as rewilding. Its reintroduction into central Wales and the Welsh borders has been particularly successful, and here it has carved out a place for itself as a kind of living spirit of the region. More than an emblem, it is a visible source of pride, a reason to celebrate a landscape. Guitarist Toby Hay is based in the hills above Rhayader, in the heart of the Red Kite Stronghold in the Powys, and he chose to name his new custom twelve-string guitar after the most famous bird of prey of the region.
And indeed, there has always been something of the fluid balance and agility of movement of the red kite in Hay’s guitar playing. His two previous solo albums – The Gathering in 2017 and The Longest Day in 2018 – have combined elements of British acoustic folk music with American primitivism. Unusual tunings and surprising chords are supported by compositions that interpret and reflect distinct geographic landscapes and the feelings they inspire. The results are often exhilarating, and Hay’s playing has an expressive power that approaches poetry, although all of his music is purely instrumental.
At New music for 12 string guitar he follows a similar pattern, but his new instrument, built specifically to respond to his idiosyncratic and creative tunings, allows for greater sonic variety and more control over the finished tunes. The recording process was completely organic – each track was recorded live, without overdubs, in the Wood Room at Real World Studios by Peter Gabriel (who saw everyone from Laura Marling and Eliza Carthy to Van Morrison and Tom Jones pass through its sacred doors) and captured by Toby’s brother, Tim.
An almost raga intro opens the opening track, Morning Song. It is an exalted piece of music, almost transcendent, and bathed in the light of a fresh dawn. It’s immediately obvious that the new guitar is no mere gimmick – even to the ears of a non-musician, the tone is breathtaking. Hay’s playing has a crystalline clarity that shines through even in his most formally experimental pieces. Now In A Minute is a playful, singing composition that disrupts the time signatures in a way that is reflected in the Welsh-English idiomatic of its title, and much like the melody sung with a Welsh accent, it never feels less than melodious. Merlod Mynydd is a more sober expression of Welsh: short and rhythmic, it celebrates the bold stoicism of the Welsh mountain pony.
The Bird and the Waterfall is a shimmering miniature, a perfect vignette of a rural scene. He bubbles and sighs, and was inspired by Hay’s encounter with a ladle, the most determined and charming of little birds, in the studio grounds. The piece was improvised pretty much on the spot, giving valuable insight into Hay’s lively, inquisitive style and his unique and sensitive way of working instead.
He is also capable of creating dark and atmospheric sound universes. The Summer Sky Cried For Rain is a longer composition. A feverish scorched earth dream, its components come together to paint a picture of a strange land, which one cannot help but assume is the product of climate change or a global conflict. Its hallucinatory exterior is supported by a formal harshness that might indicate hope or despair. This is followed by Cynefin’s tinkling overture, on which Hay sort of makes his guitar sound like a music box. Cynefin is the Welsh word for habitat, and this open trail has a welcoming feel, like a place that is both warm and unrestrained.
Sugarloaf Blues is a tribute to the mountain that overlooks the Green Man festival site in the Brecon Beacons, and was composed by Hay during the festival. It has a decent laid-back vibe – its fast and loose first half is reminiscent of some of Jimmy Page’s acoustic compositions that made their way to Led Zeppelin’s third album (and it may not be a chance if they too were inspired by the Welsh mountains), while its second part is a slow exhale, the musical equivalent of resting your tired bones by the fireside.
Once again Hay’s playful side is highlighted on Happy As A Sandboy, a track full of repetitions and subtle musical digressions from a theme. The joy is momentarily tempered by The Hare of the Last Mountain, a grim reflection on extinction and a warning about the destruction of our wilderness. Stylistically, it’s a lesson in restraint: here Hay’s expressionist features are broad but muffled. This is a perfect example of how to make an important point without shouting (without, of course, using words at all).
The Falconer’s Knot is perhaps what Hay comes closest to traditional-sounding British folk, but his own distinctive imprint is noticeable nonetheless, especially in the transitions between the fast and slow sections of the song. He is able to make this kind of composition the most natural thing in the world. And on Dead Horse Point, he re-established his predilection for American folk music. This is something he nurtured by spending a lot of time in the United States and composing music based on his experiences – indeed, much of his previous album was inspired by his trips to the great outdoors. Americans. His talent as a guitarist is such that the mix of British and American influences never seems forced or stilted.
And on the final track, he allows his most tangible display of human warmth to date. It’s a sweet and gorgeous rendition of Auld Lang Syne – the only traditional track on the album – and it emanates all the camaraderie, all the feelings of melancholy conclusions and the possibilities of brilliant new beginnings that the song was. originally meant to encapsulate but have been lost over time. I say it’s full of human warmth, but it’s also tinged with savagery, and that’s, I think, the beauty of Toby Hay, and New Music For The 12 String Guitar in particular: he’s capable of convey multiple different emotions and represent multiple objects or landscapes, often simultaneously, and all with nothing more than one instrument. It’s a sign of a master musician at work, and Hay certainly fits that description. It has only been two years since he debuted and he is already one of the best guitarists of his generation.
Order new music for the 12-string guitar (CD and vinyl): https://tobyhay.greedbag.com/buy/new-music-for-the-12-string-guit/
Upcoming live dates
November 9 – Union Chapel – LONDON
November 10 – L’Arc Perdu – RHAYADER
November 14 – Le Brunswick – EVOO
November 20 – Spillers Records – CARDIFF
November 21 – Friendly Records – BRISTOL
November 23 – Drift Records – TOTNES
TBC – CASTLE OF BISHOPS