A little bit of context is needed to understand how significant Rhiannon Tomos' emergence was for the Welsh-language music scene. Not that I'm the most adequate person to provide such explanations, given I'm a late-30's guy from Brazil and never even visited Wales in my entire life, let alone being there when the events took place, but there you go. This is going to be a somewhat lengthy review, so I'd suggest you to find yourself a nice couch and make yourself comfortable before we proceed.
Female singers were always a very important aspect of Welsh music. It's a fact that sure makes sense, given the contemplative, often yearning feeling commonly associated with Wales' cultural manifestatons, as well as the subtle, highly melodic nature of their music. And singing being almost an inborn thing for Welsh citizens, it's no wonder many, many great singing ladies are born in (or at least related to) Wales. Since at least the 1960's, Welsh-language bands have tried to built the bridge between traditional folk and more contemporary pop-rock music - many of such groups (Bran and Chwyldro being good examples) featuring talented women in the mike stand. None of them were rock vocalists per se, mind you: though immensely talented, these ladies were folk/classical singers at heart, just happening to be included on more rock-oriented outfits, as part of a particular set-up.
Rhiannon Tomos was different. Appearing pretty much out of nowhere at the tail end of the 1970's, she wasn't a woman doing her best to play rock and roll: she was a rocker woman, and pretty much the first such artist in the Welsh-language scene. Where everyone else was trying to do the right thing, she was the thing herself, and the impact of her arrival in a scene still underdeveloped and short on iconic figures can hardly be overestimated.
Her first vinyl appearance (at least to my knowledge) came in 1980, when she contributed two tracks to the now scarce "Yn Dawel Hyd Nawr" compilation. One of her songs, "India'r Prynhawn", was seemingly very successful in the Welsh-language community at the time, and she became a focus of attention almost immediately. Rhiannon signed the dotted line to the obliging Sain label in the same year, and a 7'' single ensued, coupling "Gormod I'w Golli" with a stunning, forceful rendition of "Cwm Hiraeth", an old favorite in the area. When the sole LP of Rhiannon Tomos a'r Band came out in 1981, the frontwoman was already close to a household name, with a guest appearance for Geraint Jarman (the one who wrote the aforementioned "Cwm Hiraeth") in his "Diwrnod I'r Brenin" album surely coming as a helpful piece of further exposure. The expectations were high, and it seems that "Dwed y Gwir" was raptuously received by the small-but-enthusiastic scene, though pretty much all rock fans elsewhere were unaware of the album's existence until much later, when the vocalist's connection with the highly collectable Y Diawled sparked interest from dedicated NWOBHM fans.
And what a voice Rhiannon Tomos has. Some male singers (I'd mention Ian Gillan, Paul Di'Anno and, outside of metal, Eric Burdon as examples) have what I call, in lack of a better term, a 'masculine' quality to their voice: a distinct and entirely unusual faculty to not only sound like a man (pretty much all male vocalists can do that, you know) but to conjure - in a nearly archetypal sense, and by virtue of singing alone - the very nature and spirit of the gender. Of course Paul Di'Anno was, in his glorious Iron Maiden days, the perfect image of a young man's energy and swagger, but try to forget his figure for a moment: just close your eyes, think of his voice on, say, "Prowler" or "Killers" and perhaps you'll catch my drift. Well, bearing this concept in mind, Rhiannon Tomos is a very strong example of what I'd call a 'feminine' voice - and please don't take this as an eulogy to delicate melodies and fairy-like intonations at all. Rhiannon's singing is gritty and soulful (Janis Joplin was surely quite an influence to her), and she doesn't sound like a princess waiting for the brave knight to rescue her from the tower, but rather as a strong, unsubmissive and powerful (very powerful) woman, a free spirit on her own right. The passion, the strenght and subtleties, the very nature of womanhood: it's all there, slighty rough-edged perhaps, but still mesmerizing in all its charm.
I don't want to rely too much on comparisons, as I'm afraid it could be hopelessly misleading. Instead, I'll just suggest you to watch this video, featuring an immensely impressive rendition of "Dim Ond Y Diafol" ("Only the Devil", I suppose), my personal favorite from the group's LP. Take your time - I'll be right here when you come back.
Pretty cool, huh? I don't think there's any reason to deny that I find this video to be quite fascinating - and though it obviously has something to do with Rhiannon Tomos' looks (she was, and I'm sure still is, a beatiful woman after all), I'm sure you'll agree that the most important strong point here is her performance. Lots of charisma and stage presence, with a very gifted voice to match - that's all you need to deliver a memorable rendition, which is exactly the case here. And she seems to have written almost all the lyrics in her career, giving her some extra points on my Accomplished Artist's Award.
And what about the album, you ask me? Well, one must have in mind it's not a heavy metal record by any stretch: it's straight-ahead rock and roll for the most part, with many references to the 1970's blues rock scene and oh yeah, a few more hard-rocking ditties to make metalheads happy too. The songs may not be really challenging, but the instrumentation leaves little to nothing to be desired: the rhythm section (drummer Graham 'La' Land and Mark Jones on bass) keep things simple and tight throughout, and the guitar duo of Len Jones and Meredydd Morris deserve some praise indeed, as there's some pretty interesting teamwork going on in places. But the spotlights are all on Rhiannon Tomos of course, and I'm glad to say she shines quite brightly from start to finish, even if some songs could be a bit better, if we're to be honest here.
As stated above, I love "Dim Ond Y Diafol" with a passion, this being a heavy ballad that opens Side Two with a slightly ominous vibe, while allowing Rhiannon Tomos a lot of space to shine. It's her most impressive performance on the entire record IMO (and paired with "Cwm Hiraeth" as my personal highlights from her career), but I understand some long-haired, horn-raising listeners won't be as impressed as I am, which is something of a shame if you ask me, but nevermind. More blues rock comes next with "Dynamite" and "Proffwyd", the latter being a song that could be played right after Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" without being too out of place at all (and I mean it as a good thing, really). "Penna 'Lawr" is reasonably hard-rocking, and it could perhaps have been a fitting B-side to the hyphotetical "Cer a Hi" single as the second most-NWOBHM-ish tune around here - if you happen to like Y Diawled's "Dewch Gyda Ni" (I sure do, for instance), there's no tangible reason to dislike this one. To round things off, "America" is a slightly more adventurous piece of songwriting, with a moody, atmospheric final section that gives the record something of a relaxing ending. It seems to be the most thoughtful moment of the LP alongside "Dim Ond Y Diafol", but my Welsh is almost nonexistent as you can all imagine, so I don't have a clue on what Rhiannon and her friends could possibly be thinking about on this one. Sounds nice anyway, so I'd say it's a fitting way to close proceedings on a mostly enjoyable LP.
Whatever the story, Y Diawled was no more in early 1984, and Rhiannon herself wouldn't persevere in the scene for long. After being part of the We-Are-The-World-style benefit single "Dwylo Dros Y Môr" (1985), she formed a blues rock band called Bandit in 1986, but it was a very fleeting affair with no official recordings ever surfacing. Since then, she seems to have chosen to keep a low profile (the fact that the whole Welsh-language rock thing fizzled out in the late 1980's surely didn't help matters), though I'm aware she gave at least a few local interviews through the years. In fact, there's good reason to believe she have reformed her Band for sporadic, celebratory gigs from the early 2000's onwards (she almost surely took part in the Faenol festival in 2000, for instance), though I would definitely like to have more conclusive evidence on such outings. Still, I sincerely hope she's doing fine and enjoying whatever activities she's involved with nowadays. I know it's a pretty common finish line for reviews around here, but I hardly ever meant it as whole-heartedly as I do now: if you good reader happen to have any extra snippet of info regarding Rhiannon Tomos a'r Band (most of all, of course, about Rhiannon herself), it would be an extremely kind gesture of yours to get in touch. I understand that life moves on and people are often just unwilling to dwell too deep in the past, but I'm a huge fan really, and it would be fantastic to learn more about an artist I very much admire, and the musicians who helped her to create some pretty nice music back in the day.
Rhiannon Tomos (V), Len Jones (G), Meredydd Morris (G), Mark Jones (B), Graham 'La' Land (D).
01. 'Sdim Digon i'w Gael (M.Morris / R.Tomos) 4:00
02. Rosaline (L.Jones / R. Tomos) 2:23
03. Cofio'r Cur (M.Morris / R. Tomos) 3:51
04. La Belle Dame Sans Merci (M.Morris / R.Tomos) 3:26
05. Cer a Hi (i'r Eithaf Un) (L.Jones / R.Tomos) 3:22
06. Dim Ond y Diafol (J.Lovering / L.Jones / R.Tomos) 3:54
07. Dynamite (L.Jones / R.Tomos) 3:12
08. Proffwyd (M.Morris / R. Tomos) 3:33
09. Penna 'Lawr (L.Jones / R. Tomos) 2:31
10. America (M.Morris / R.Tomos) 5:51
Have you been involved with any of the bands here mentioned? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know!