Toby Hay “The Gathering” (Cambrian Records, 2017)

A quotation from Basho, the sixteenth century Zen Buddhist monk and poet, adorns The Gathering’s inlay sleeve: I like to wash / The dust of the world / In the droplets of dew. Basho, of course, is most famous for his haiku: Listen! A frog / Jumping into the stillness / Of an ancient pond. This album is anything but plop! Listening to Hay’s amazing collection of instrumental six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitar suites, one is struck by his Basho-like attention to the beauty of nature. There is a pastoral feel to his inventive and immersive oeuvre; the result of quiet contemplation, time spent reflecting on the wonders of creation. 

The Fly Fisherman and The Trout has a hypnotic harmonium drone accompanying Hay’s irresistible guitar, whose deft action casts a filament of golden thread out above the glistening water. His lure is a Baetis, that ‘Blue-Winged Olive’ mayfly that is like munchies to the trout. Watch that critter flitter and flutter, swooping and swooning its hypnotic dance of delight.

Influenced by American Primitive guitarists like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, Hay displays a relaxed virtuosity that from his riparian repose is deeply seductive. Toby conjures an entrancing sound-suite on Sketches of a Roman Fort whose ruins at Dolau Gaer stand near the home of this native of  Rhayader and which have always fascinated him. Like Iain Sinclair wandering down the Roman Road in Lights Out For The Territory, but armed with a guitar instead of a notebook, this psychogeographer who revels in “deep-time history ” creates a picture of the lives of the Roman soldiers who must have stood on that wet, Welsh hillside dreaming about the warmth of Italy, longing for wine, their freezing feet in sandals. Hay’s feet are planted in the 21st century, his mind mapping the terrain, which he marks out with regimented chords supported by a rousing fiddle and cello part that brings to mind the Penguin Café Orchestra at their finest. You can picture Gluteus Maximus and his illustrious cohort. Yes, I hear you say… but apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, public order, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Black Brook is a stream that runs near the Roman fort, and for this delight Hay utilises a 1930’s arch-top guitar, which he says “is a strange instrument that seems to have music in it already. You just have to let it out.” Strange, but truly mesmerising. Hay’s neural pathways would be a filigree of phosphorescence, if you looked at his noggin under an MRI scanner, during The Gathering, the title track and a composition about bringing the flock down off the hills, herding them with horse and quad-bike, this exotic pattern reflected by his delicate picking that soothes and delights.

Like Starlings in glorious flight, not questioning, just breathing in our precious atmosphere, that is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” said Keats, describing a state of mind he called negative capability, namely when one is open and receptive to the glory and the beauty of nature; wandering inside “the Penetralium of mystery”, that is when the secrets are revealed. That is when we begin to see beyond the gossamer-thin veil that separates us from eternity. After bathing in this exquisite selection (like that frog) I’m positive that Toby Hay has travelled deep within the Penetralium and knows, like Keats and Basho, that the path to enlightenment, begins in the green gardens of tranquillity.

Author: Muff Fitzgerald

Muff Fitzgerald has worked as a roadie, publicist, broadcaster and journalist. Music makes his world go round and round and round. Somebody make it stop, please!

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