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REVIEW : Trawsnewid / Transform 2024 – Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Trawsnewid (Transform) happened the first weekend in February, a month placed firmly outside the traditional music festival season. Indeed, a happening seems the most appropriate description, Aberystwyth Arts Centre and FOCUS Wales collaborating to create the two-day event, which turned out to be one heck of an inspired idea. A strong concentration on the new and emerging, it served as a pleasurable regrouping of Welsh musicians and community and enthusiasts, after treading tepid water during the annual dull of January.

In pace with that, what’s not to love about daytime mooching around the cultured town of Aberystwyth, its record shop and record fair, nice little Oxfam bookshop there too, before the live music at Trawsnewid commences at a very civilised teatime?

The relaxed vibe in the seaside town, chatty gulls and lapping sea water serves as nature’s laidback soundtrack, but once inside the Arts Centre, it becomes speedily apparent how those handpicked to take part this weekend are on a determined journey of creative progression, with sizeable and sometimes surprising leaps forward and expansions, incorporating new genres and elements hinted at previously.

That value is key; the downtempo smooth and soothe of the Eadyth we thought we knew is freshly bloomed into an alt-metal angel-soul two piece, north Wales-born guitarist, Rhodri Foxhall, muscling up proceedings. Eadyth has always had a firm identity and attitude but this now duo is darker, deeper, and genuinely thrilling. After expecting to swoon and smile and sway in the comfortable seats in the Theatre, only to be made to sit bolt upright within a few notes, how good is that to experience?

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Triple harpist Cerys Hafana from Machynlleth just up the road had played the intimate setting that is Aberystwyth’s Bank Vaults previously but this is her first appearance at the Arts Centre. A real step up, on every level. Hafana continues her upward trajectory, currently expanding her audience outside Wales by including interpretations of English and Scottish folk songs worked on during lockdown, her stories and trademark explanations of her work make her set rich and fulfilling and inclusive.

Trawsnewid’s added twist is unique visuals to enhance each performance, every artist has a film illustrating and providing context. Cerys Hafana’s graphics have a gothic folk element, a man gradually built by an invisible Frankenstein one imagines, bit by uneven bit, made out of rocks and wood and garlanded with wild flowers.

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The visuals for fellow Welsh Music Prize 2023 finalist Ynys, the project of Aberystwyth native Dylan Hughes, are appropriately strong on local identity, a focus on the rural town’s landscape and movement of the sea not far from the very stage on which he performs. The meaning of Transform for him over this weekend is literal, the songs shared from the forthcoming album out later this year bold and huge with mighty choruses to match. Proper pop bangers. Back in 2019 Ynys emerged leaning vocally on a friend for early single Mae’n Hawdd (It’s Easy) to the degree it essentially formed a duet. We’ll have whatever he’s on here in 2024, anyway. Did not expect that. At all. It felt wonderfully ambitious.

The impressively-hatted HMS Morris have an eye on the big prize that is SXSW in Texas a few weeks’ time, and the four piece go big and wide for this set in the run-up. Heledd Watkins went to university in Aberystwyth, so it feels extra appropriate they play Trawsnewid. The fabulous ‘House‘ from last year’s Dollar Lizard Money Zombie album the show stealer, politicised art-rock at its finest. Costumes and humour and message mark each HMS Morris performance. Bloody great. HMS Morris are crowdfunding for the SXSW trip here.

Trawsnewid boasts with three stages, the Great Hall, seated Theatre, and Foyer. The hall is indeed great, with a manageable 1250 capacity – no remoteness here – but a considerable step up for the newer artists performing. Take Cardiff’s The Family Battenberg, who openly confess this to be the band’s debut on a space of this size. As the set progresses with ‘Runny HunnyFeed Yer (Nganga)’ , it’s shoulders back and chest out and you can just dream about what it’s gonna be like the next time they play a place so nice and of comparable capacity. What a journey to be on, and to observe; to facilitate development and build confidence is essential for newer artists to succeed. Special mention goes to The Family Battenberg’s psychedelic trippy DIY graphics, courageously delivered live.

Adwaith dominate the main stage, of course they do, very much used to such status in recent times. It’s near enough four years to the day since celebrating Welsh Language Music Day over in Liverpool with a lunchtime set, so it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the journey since then. How far they’ve come. Adwaith tease at the third album, now completed. It’s very good, they say. Even if they say so themselves. Will ‘Addo‘ be on it, or not? Who knows! The threesome are a big draw at Trawsnewid. Talking to people in the audience we hear many stories of seeing the three piece at different festivals and venues in the past year in particular.

Friday’s headliner Gruff Rhys kicks off his Sadness Sets Me Free tour at the festival; he and his band wear white removal overalls carrying emotional baggage for us all, maybe? The record’s been out a week to the day, so we enjoy live versions of the newer like ‘Bad Friend‘ along with the more familiar – there’s so much love for ‘Pang!’, drummer Kliph Scurlock conducting the audience via the familair medium of signs.

Gruff Rhys and Gwenno the following night and Adwaith come to that serve as inspirational examples of what can be achieved for Welsh artists coming up the ranks. If you see it, you can be it. No one wants to go home after Gwenno, a good thing the Welsh drill king Sage Todz is there to rip it up on the Foyer, where DJs kept the air warm with tunes throughout both days. We last saw him at last year’s Focus Wales in Wrexham in a smaller room of enthusiasts, to see him in front of a keen fresh crowd is energy itself.

The open-minded sold-out audience of mainly local residents keenly attending sets over the weekend was noticeable. Moving from stage to stage with open minds ready to take in the new and unfamiliar rather than loitering and gassing in the bar, waiting for the bigger names they might hear on 6 Music. This is a big part of Trawsnewid’s charm and atmosphere. Beatbox pioneer and rapper Mr Phormula came across as a Pied Piper for the good people of Aberystwyth as Saturday’s opener, the seats filling up, pulled into the theatre by the energy and beats. His visuals powerful and stark, slightly terrifying scenes of him on a giant cliff, vast water below.

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Afro Cluster‘s Skunkadelic backed by DJ paced the stage with passionate and determined delivery but with warm, engaging humour. He initiated quite wonderful audience participation; a festival is nothing without punters armed with the right attitude.

So, the inaugural Trawsnewid. It felt very much a way for Welsh artists to set out their stall for the coming year, something more confidently done when gifted both the physical space and headspace for progression and ambition. Such a safe space gives permission, encouragement to push that little bit further. It would have been good if the University of Aberystwyth student community had engaged in larger numbers, an expansion maybe to be considered for next year. There will be another Trawsnewid in 2025…we hope. It’s an idea and initiative so great, a real new year boost, we wonder why everyone everywhere isn’t doing it. More of these indoor festivals – Independent Venue Week aside – at the top end of the year, please.

Photo credit Kev Curtis except Cerys Hafana, Cosmic Dog Fog, Eadyth, Ynys by Cath Holland.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.