The second phase of Olan Mill continues with Hiraeth, an album that complements last year’s Home in timbre while balancing it in subject. A rough translation of the Welsh title is “homesickness for a home to which you cannot return”. Reflecting this concept, the sounds are spacious and unmoored, recalling much of the ambient music of the late 20th century while providing a more organic touch.
Listening to Hiraeth, one imagines an orchestra playing under molasses, notes gently moving through the fluid, muted and sweet. It’s not until the end of the second track, “Echo of Tomorrow”, that a single instrument is spotlighted. The listener is caught between the specific beauty of the piano and the widescreen beauty of the strings, reflecting the gap between the attainable and the desired, or the contrast between a flower and a field. “Cultivator” amplifies this contrast, offering darker timbres at the start and quieter passages at the center. This piece too ends in ivory, producing bittersweet tension. Throughout the recording, Patricia Boynton’s soprano voice soars like an ideal, drifting just out of reach. We are not who we used to be. No map can guide us. We can never return.
Without the description, would one think of hiraeth? Perhaps not, but a sense of loss is apparent in the yearning strings and plaintive piano as well as in the wordless vox. The album comes across as a lament, filled with grace and tenderness. The mood threatens to break only twice, but in each case Smalley withdraws at the last second: once at the start of “Echo of Tomorrow”, as rain gives way to a brief drone (reminiscent of the start of Home) and once more at 5:21 of “Nature for Equal Rights”, as the strings grow agitated and seem ready to pounce. These occasional moments of dissent enrich the album to the extent that one wishes to hear more, a comment also made in our review of Home. But to do so might be to produce too many emotions for the framework to bear. Better to yearn for a lost home than to rail against its loss: a greater depth is mined from sadness than from anger. (Richard Allen)