This is an odd one. Robin Williamson one of the founders of the acid-drenched Incredible String Band, whose early recordings changed the face of British folk music forever, laying the ground for groups such as Steeleye Span and many others. Some 35 years later, he is breaking new ground with music that though forward is rooted deeply in the past. On his ECM debut, Williamson has taken upon himself the task of setting the work of his first inspiration, Dylan Thomas, to music. Along the way, he also soundtracks tomes by Llywarch Hen and Taliesen and Henry Vaughan. Yes, they are all Bards from the British Isles. In addition to this worthy task, Williamson dug into his own past for the strongest of his material and rearranged it for solo accompaniment, thereby situating himself in that noble tradition. And who better to do so? Williamson has been rock steady in his investigations of all things poetic and traditional -- no matter how wild the interpretation--since 1962. Musically this combination of words and music is stunning. Vaughan's "The World," is equal parts 18th century British folk and Indian raga, sung a cappella. The words do not falter in Williamson's reading; his singing voice is strong, full of emotion and fire, as if these words were his own. On Thomas' "The-Seed-at-Zero," the poet's own voice rings ghostly through Williamson's delivered in song, with all of its drama and pathos intact. But the truly shining example is "Holy Spring"/"To God in God's Absence." Here, Williamson reads Thomas' elegiac tome to loneliness, desolation, and death with a moan and shudder that sends chills down the spine before his guitar sounds and he sings his own tune as a coda: "I sing to send songs back to themselves/Seeking no sanctuary more than the world is home/What safety is there if we are not kin/With the killed and plentiful...." With this dedication to a god who may or may not be listening, Williamson uses the folk tradition to call life into question and affirm it at the same time, using music about death, birth, and prayer. The only seemingly odd inclusion here is "The Bells of Rhymney" by Idris Davies and Pete Seeger. It may seem to come out of late modernity, but it does not. If it is odd, it is because it predates -- at least lyrically-- almost all of the material here. Williamson ends this album with an homage to Thomas and the others that is completely free of artifice or guile. It is moving in that it is not so much a tribute to the work of such men, but is a statement on how timely, even now, their purpose and words are; a brilliant work.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek