Album Review: Y Mabinogi – The First Branch

Y Mabinogi – The First Branchmabinogi

Damh The Bard, 2017

One of the highlights of Witchfest was seeing Damh the Bard play a headline slot in the main tent. I’ve seen Damh before, in the wonderfully eerie setting of Norwich Puppet Theatre (a converted medieval church), and he is absolutely brilliant (and a very nice chap too), but seeing him in a tent at night surrounded by dancing Witches was something else.

That evening, we chatted to Damh after the performance and my partner bought us a copy of his latest album, Y Mabinogi – The First Branch, and when we got home, we poured ourselves a large Scotch, popped it on the stereo, and…

…were absolutely transported into an Otherworld of myths, gods and faeries.

For people expecting a straightforward Damh the Bard album, this will come as a suprise, but not an unpleasant one. A good half of the run time of this 2-disc collection is storytelling, spoken word sections that narrate the story of Y Mabinogi and the characters therein. But, blimey, those stories are compelling and Damh does an amazing job of telling them, bringing to life the people, creatures and places of the tales.

For those unfamiliar with the stories, Y Mabinogi (or The Mabinogion) are a collection of Welsh tales, first written down by Christian monks around the 11th century and then translated into English and popularised by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 1800s. There are four “branches”, each one like an episode in a series (think the Marvel or Star Wars movies). The First Branch, which this album tells, recounts the stories of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and his encounter with Arawn, king of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld; his meeting and later marriage with the horse-goddess Rhiannon, and the loss and subsequent return of Rhiannon’s son, Pryderi, whom Rhiannon was unfairly accused of killing.

The tales themselves are compelling, and the characters draw the listener in. Rhiannon comes across as brilliant, intelligent and no-nonsense, Pwyll as a bit naive but well-intentioned, and Arawn as chillingly otherworldly (thanks in part to some good use of spooky reverb), but as you would expect from Damh, the music is what really brings the world of Y Mabinogi to life.

From Pagan folk, to heartbreaking ballad, to joyous instrumental, to some seriously good metal guitar, the songs on this album cover a lot of ground, but each one feels important, placed there in a specific part of the story for a reason. Some will make you cry, and some are catchy enough for you to sing around the house days later.

This is definitely an album to sit and listen to all the way through. Do not try to listen on Spotify or some other “shuffle” service, you will get shuffled through the spoken tracks too and end up hopelessly lost (rather like a traveller in the Otherworld I suppose). Treat it like you’re watching a movie – sit down, pour a drink, and immerse yourself in the story.

Damh is currently working on the Second Branch, which he described at Witchfest as “the Game of Thrones of the series” and based on the First Branch, I can’t wait!

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