The Strange Uses of Ox Gall opens with a call to “cut the ballast loose”, but you might want to think twice before joining in. Things soon get alarming: “Cut your arms off! Cut your toes off!” chants a ragged chorus, backed by a toy organ riff. When the first full length track, ‘Funny Bones’, kicks in it is tunefully pastoral but also strangely obsessed with body parts. This unsettling, distorted, acid-soaked perspective washes over the whole album, taking up where Syd Barrett left off with Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
H. Hawkline’s second album is a slice of addictive, gently unhinged Welsh pastoral pop. Hawkline is Huw Evans, well known in Welsh music circles from various bands, from Welsh language radio and from the Welsh Rare Beat albums he helped to compile. The rediscovered history of overlooked Welsh psych music is the clear starting point for this record, which wears its extensive West Coast (as in Dyfed) influences on its sleeve. Evans may not be the first Welsh musician to play music in a continuum from the late 60s via Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci to Gruff Rhys, but a strong tradition has coalesced in Cardiff of a distinctively Welsh brand of music that is the undisputed sound of the West.
Over the course of six minutes ‘Funny Bones’ transforms itself from Pink Floyd tribute track to anthemic weirdness, culminating in what sound like honks from a clown’s horn. Then ‘Mind How You Go’ develops a gorgeous, harmonica and organ tune, dripping with mountaintop melancholia. This is a track that, had he written it, Gruff Rhys would have been delighted to include on Hotel Shampoo; given Huw Evans’ appearances as a support act to Rhys, this is probably no coincidence.
These songs are above all else lovely: faded, dusty, transmitting unevenly from apparently damaged recordings, but filtering gently through and drifting into the deep recesses of the brain. There is something naggingly familiar about the ethereal melodies of songs such as ‘Sea of Sand’ and ‘Surf Pound’, as though heard in a dream. They seem to have been around for ever, longer than the towns and the cities, as old as the Cambrian rocks.
Tracks are separated with short interludes of apparently casual background sounds. Although lending to the general atmosphere, they do not contribute to the cohesiveness of the record as a whole and it is, in fact, a little too uneven to be a complete success. However, the best tracks are so disarming that they more than make up for the weak spots.
The Strange Uses of Ox Gall is available as a download, the only alternative apparently being a 150 copy vinyl pressing. The record company, Shape, seem to be encouraging the album to disappear without trace, to re-emerge with serious rarity factor sometime in the 2020s. But really, why wait? Encase yourself in a shimmering bubble and listen to H. Hawkline’s sweet sounds right now.