Upon learning the news that Gruff Rhys’ latest album, Seeking New Gods, is a concept record based upon Mount Paektu in North Korea, it’s impossible to stop your head from spinning. Of all the subject matters to dedicate a full album, a mountain that sits between North Korea and China is an obscure choice to day the least. Despite the somewhat surreal starting point, there’s a beauty that comes with it, one which leads to Rhys creating a pop masterpiece.
For some background information on the mountain; it’s a cultural behemoth in the East, with Koreans gifting it with a mythical quality and its caldera lake, which sits within it. It’s considered the spiritual home of the country. It’s more than just a mountain, it is everything to the Korean people, and its mythical significance drew Rhys in.
“There’s so much mythology around it – like a lot of holy mountains – as cultures come and go,” Rhys commented. “Mountains outlast all the different political situations and people, and I liked the idea of a biography that lasts a really long time, spanning the rise and fall of whole civilisations and the various peoples who adapted their mythologies to the mountain itself.”
If you expected a history lesson on Seeking New Gods, then you’re going to feel short-changed by the record, and you’d be better served finding yourself a Dan Snow documentary to scratch that itch. Thankfully for the rest of us, Rhys ended up using the mountain purely as the starting point before searching within and creating a majestical album that matches the verbose level which Mount Paektu boasts.
It is 25 years this week since Super Furry Animals released their debut album Fuzzy Logic amid the Britpop boom, and with Seeking New Gods, Rhys shows that he is still firing on all cylinders. While that era of music has produced countless bands whose feet have remained firmly planted back in 1996 forever, Super Furry Animals kept their artistry moving in multiple directions.
Seeking New Gods is his seventh solo album, and the LP sees him continue to kick the door down rather than playing it safe, which simply isn’t in his lexicon. The album is theatrical, grandiose and sees Rhys flex his songwriting muscles in a way that he’s never done before. Still, even despite the somewhat left-field concept of the record, the Welshman’s ear for melody is striking throughout. Album opener, ‘Mausoleum Of My Former Self’, sucks you into this heartbreakingly weird and wonderful world he’s created.
The majority of the album was recorded following a US tour in 2018, with Rhys patiently sitting on this canon of songs which cultivate to create a hazy sonic experience.
‘Can’t Carry On’ is built around the Super Furry Animals singer’s ethereal voice, and the full-band approach to the record lends itself to Rhys’ strengths, with the backing vocals on this track unlocking an extra dimension to the track. The titular track is sparse, and Rhys gives ample breathing room to the songs on Seeking New Gods, which allows the album to canter along at its own pace. The shortest effort on the record, ‘Hiking In Lightning’ is electrifying and the most thrilling number. Of course, its absurd title only makes it more joyous.
The drums throughout the album are riveting, especially on the aforementioned track, with former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock pulling out all the stops to make Seeking New Gods a pulsating listen. In fact, the entire band of which Rhys has pulled together for Seeking New Gods sound obscenely tight. They manage to perfectly translate the live-recording approach onto the album to make it feel like they are in the same room and make the record as immersive as humanly possible.
Seeking New Gods is reminiscent of the classic concept records of the 1960s, even though it’s very much its own entity and isn’t attempting to replicate anything from yesteryear, but matches it for thought-provoking originality.
Album closer, ‘Distant Snowy Peaks’, ties everything together and offers a moment of reflection. It begins with a dosage of sombre piano notes before Rhys’ voice arrives in a heart-wrenching manner as he watches everything he yearns for glide out further into the distance.
Not one person was crying out for an album loosely based around a Korean holy mountain, but Rhys has accidentally stumbled upon a treasure. The abstract theme has somehow worked as the consummate vehicle for the Super Furry Animals man to continue his sonic exploration. After almost 30 years, Rhys is still making resplendent records, and few know how to craft a chorus as luscious as he does.