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Cerys Hafana, The Bitter EP – a review

Gavin McNamara hails The Bitter EP by Cerys Hafana for its eerie folk fusion and creative use of harp and found sounds. Innovation abounds.

Release Date
24 January 2024
Cerys Hafana, The Bitter EP
Cerys Hafana's The Bitter EP, blending Welsh and English traditional music, showcases her innovative use of the triple harp, found sounds, and unique percussion. Featuring eerie reimaginings like 'The Bitter Withy,' it explores themes of retribution, religious motifs, and folk horror, intertwining ancient songs with modern experimental twists. Hafana's artful fusion on tracks like 'Willy O’ Winsbury' highlights her ability to merge stories across cultures, marked by her standout musical arrangements and vocal contrasts, establishing the EP as a standout contemporary traditional music experience.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Cerys Hafana‘s second album, 2022’s Edyf, was winning plaudits from The Guardian and Cerys Matthews, praise being heaped on her remarkable harp playing. The multi-instrumentalist from Machynlleth “mangles, mutates and transforms” traditional music and, on Edyf, most of that tradition was Welsh. On this five-track EP, she turns her triple harp, found sounds and grab-bag of percussion-y things towards the English tradition with wondrous effect. Originally recorded for the Old Tunes Fresh Takes Podcast during lockdown, this is a collection of, often startling, re-imaginings. 

If Frankie Archer is, rightly, the current darling of those that love a bit of experimental trad, then Cerys Hafana is her Welsh counterpart. A sister-in-arms. One who is just as likely to take a song that we all know so well and tilt it to one side. 

‘The Bitter Withy’ [Roud 452] is a 15th-century carol but has nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, it is a tale of comeuppance and retribution, of the rich and the snobbish being judged and found wanting. Hafana’s triple harp is beautiful but it is the use of willow sticks percussion and a toy piano that lends the song an unsettling edge. The toy piano, especially, is music-box-scary – tinkling throughout, insistent and odd. The thwack of the willow sticks adds a further sense of unease and mild threat. Hafana’s voice sits in juxtaposition to this – it is Unthanks-sweet and gently restrained, a smiling Celt reciting the stories of the undeserving around her. 

The neat lines that are forming between the newer trad musicians and the Wyrd-Folk fraternity are throwing up some of the most interesting music being made at the moment. A love of The Wicker Man and Folk Horror is wrapping tendrils around the very oldest of songs. Hafana fully embraces the Wyrd on ‘Child Owlet’ [Roud 3883, Child 291] as great cascades of her voice wash down through a nasty tale of death and dismemberment. Harmonium, clarinet and a sample of the organ at Leeds Town Hall form a high drone under which a gentle electric guitar picks out the tune. Hafana’s voice is, again, in contrast to the darkness but, as the spoken word intonations towards the end begin, so the spirit of Summerisle can be glimpsed once more. The tearing of paper, as percussion, marks the turning of the page on a thrilling story.

Aside from the mildly unsettling darkness that can be found in most of the songs on The Bitter EP, there’s also a religious seam. ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ [Roud 8194] has a purgatory mournfulness, and is funereal slow with big thumping piano chords and spectral wind chimes. As a multi-tracked Hafana hopes that “Christ receive thy soul”, so the wintery weirdness settles around it like snow, the harp sparkle-bright.

The genius of this EP is in the thoughtful versions of old songs that have been played a thousand times. ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ [Roud 169, Child 79] being a perfect example. While the aeolian harp helps to retain the supernatural unease, Hafana turns “cold clay, cold clay” into a shimmering Indie-pop chorus. It’s as exciting and alive as the False Lights version but filled with a multi-tracked voice and unquiet creaks. 

Cerys Hafana saves her most interesting trick for the last track on The Bitter EP. She pairs ‘Willy O’ Winsbury’ [Roud 64, Child 100] with ‘Caru Merch Fonheddig’ (‘Loving a Noble Woman’), a poem composed by medieval bard Dafydd ap Gwilym. While it is a version of the same story, the contrast between the two is remarkable. Hafana sings the English story sweetly, simply, teasing out the vulnerability but Iestyn Tyne speaks the Welsh one. He seems to spit the lines, the guttural Welsh phonology sounding furious. The stories interweave, calling to each other across the Bristol channel, the same but different. 

The Bitter EP may have been recorded for a podcast during lockdown but that doesn’t diminish its brilliance one bit. As good an EP as you’re likely to hear this year.

The Bitter is available for download now via the Cerys Hafana Bandcamp page.