The 1990s alternative rock boom resulted in numerous artists being signed to major labels that would have never had a shot at mainstream attention previously.
One such band was Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, a Welsh psychedelic folk collective whose members were barely out of their teens when Fontana snapped them up in 1997. Although their signing was partially as a result of the popularity of the Britpop scene sweeping the United Kingdom in the 1990s, Gorky’s had little to do with that movement. For one, their offbeat folky sound was stylistically a million miles away from Oasis and Blur. The band also recorded numerous songs partially or entirely in Welsh, and they eschewed a lot of the traditional guitar-rock tropes. Several of their songs are acoustic, and even on their electric tunes, they included folk instruments seldom heard in modern music, like the bodhran, hurdy-gurdy and shawm.
Even at the height of their popularity, around the release of their fourth album Barafundle, the band’s out-of-step sound and aesthetic combined to make them a minor chart act at best. Although five of their singles made the UK Top 50, not one got higher than number 41, resulting in the band never appearing on Top of the Pops or the BBC Chart Show.
Yet, Barafundle stands as one of the best albums of 1997. It is a deep, imaginative and eminently re-listenable record that maintains its uniqueness 20 years on
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci straddle two very different worlds on most of their albums, including Barafundle. On one hand, they excel at performing pastoral folk rock that feels like classic Fairport Convention updated for the 1990s. On the other, they’re a terrific, offbeat psychedelic pop band with a knack for writing fantastic melodies. This dichotomy is at play throughout the album, most notably on lead single “Patio Song”. It’s musically a folk-style tune, but its unconventionality is at play throughout, including in the quirky lyric choices (“oh, isn’t it a lovely day/my patio is on fire”) and the sudden switch to Welsh midway through. It’s definitely the kind of song that sticks out among the glut of Oasis-alikes.
“Patio Song” was written by Euros Childs, the band’s keyboardist and the frontman on most of their songs, and typifies his gift for humorous songwriting and pop-rooted chord progressions. The song’s lilting folk style creates a soft, dynamic bed for Childs’ voice and lyrics to lay on top of.
Opening track “Diamond Dew” is more folkier than “Patio Song” but the band’s gifts are there just the same. Childs’ vocal delivery is the highlight on this one, particularly on the lifting chorus. The lyrics – co-written by Childs and bassist Richard James – are also evocative, painting a gauzy portrait of childhood in the Welsh countryside.
Aside from Childs, the rest of the band is on top form on Barafundle; Particularly his sister, violinist Megan Childs, whose playing provides lofty high notes and succulent counter-melodies to songs like the hard-driving psych-pop of “Meirion Wyllt” and the instrumental “Cursed, Coined and Crucified”.
Guitarist John Lawrence, the band’s other major songwriter, wrote or co-wrote a handful of song on the record, with “Starmoonsun” as his masterpiece. The song is a gorgeous piece of psychedelic folk and the most successful mixture of modern pop music and traditional Welsh folk in the band’s entire career. Its gentle melody and the band’s gallant, shimmering instrumentation make it the standout track on the record. Of note is a solo in the middle-eight played on the shawm, a medieval ancestor to the oboe with a striking, trumpet-like sound that is almost never heard in popular music.
The rest of the album flips between their two styles, often drifting between moody psychedelic rock and medieval-sounding folk on the same song. “Miniature Kingdoms” has a classic quiet-loud-quiet construction, with jazzy piano and horns on the verses and a distorted chorus that builds to an explosion of trumpets. “Dark Night” also has a jazzy feel, but the piano ballad never goes to the loud heights that “Miniature Kingdoms” does. Instead, its chorus has the same vibe, but veers into a completely different time signature and considerably more surreal lyrics.
Barafundle stands as GZM’s best album, and it successfully makes the case that they were one of the best British bands of the 1990s. Their discography was incredibly consistent and they avoided the late career missteps that many of their peers did, but they never released an album as back-to-front great again.
The quality of Barafundle didn’t do much for its popularity at the time. The band’s sound was so out of step with everything going on in British rock in 1997 that the album made it to #46 on the UK album charts and no higher. The album was a complete commercial non-entity in the US, despite a push from Fontana’s parent label Mercury Records. If Pulp and Supergrass couldn’t notch hits in the States, there was almost no luck to be had for less conventional acts like Gorky’s making commercial inroads.
Despite not making the band famous, Barafundle has aged gracefully by sounding completely out of its era. Its rich dynamics allow breathing room for the instruments the way that certain British guitar-rock records from the mid-1990s do not.
Barafundle has fallen out-of-print in the United States, and is currently unavailable through streaming services (although several of the band’s superb late-period records are). However, it is well worth seeking out in record store used bins or Amazon, particularly for fans of British folk-rock, psychedelic pop music and those who like their alternative music with a bit of a prog-rock bent.
The album is an underrated gem that deserved to be re-discovered; Particularly now, where big-name indie acts like Devendra Banhart, Grizzly Bear and Tame Impala seem to have passing similarity (if not direct influence, as is the case with Of Montreal) to Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Little else may have sounded like Barafundle in 1997, but 20 years and a revival of interest in psychedelic music has done wonders for its timeliness.