North Wales’ Cwm Idwal is rated as one of the finest sights the UK has to offer. A naturally-formed amphitheatre carved out of the earth across millennia, it is surrounded on all sides by the mountains of Snowdonia, some of the tallest and most imposing in Britain. In its basin lie several dark, cold lakes, many with legends of their own, but it is along one of the rocky mountain paths leading to the area that the main attraction can be found. Known in English as the Devil’s Kitchen thanks to the plumes of steam that regularly rise from it, the black crack that splits the rock at Clogwyn y Geifr is more ominously referred to by local people as Twll Du, or “Black Hole.” As gorgeous one day as it can be terrifying the next, the region at once salves souls and takes lives; even the rocks themselves at Twll Du can appear wracked with anguish.
Llyn Y Cwn is a remote lake situated just above Devil’s Kitchen at over 700 metres of altitude. Musician Benjamin Powell has used its name as an alter-ego for a decade now, and has recorded in the region numerous times before. IV, for example, was recorded on Llyn Y Cwn’s shores and released two years ago with the intention being to bring the otherworldly atmosphere and unpredictable conditions of the place – “usually wild and wet but sometimes peaceful and serene” – back down the mountain to his listeners. The numerals in IV‘s track titles denote the precise dates the recordings were taken, with “XVIII” marked out by the artist as particularly important. It is perfectly chilling, haunted by a humming dread and locked in restless stasis; all the more affecting once you learn the artist was in fact stranded in a hollow beneath the lake when he took the source material, and it was his 40th birthday.
Much of that unease carries over into Twll Du, which has been picked up by Cold Spring following a limited release on Powell’s own mankymusic label. Here the tracks are named for the locations in which the material was gathered, so mountains like Y Garn are celebrated, and mythical-looking natural structures like the Castell y Gwynt are brought to empyreal life. Throughout, the Devil’s Kitchen itself casts a dark shadow, helping to capture the area’s paradoxes; as popular as the scrambles are with hikers, and as idyllic as the views might be to picnickers, this is not, as Powell well knows, a place to be taken lightly.
Several tracks here are genuinely hellish. “Glyder Fawr” opens with a bone-rattling gale that only grows in intensity; its eight minutes are an exercise in endurance that bring the mountain’s storms to vivid life, fading only rarely as though the recorder has ducked for respite behind a boulder. In these quieter moments a quivering organ drone finds a gap through the clouds like a beam of light from a guardian angel, but its glow is soon snuffed out by the darker forces at work.
Elsewhere, the album’s title track – a dispatch from the Black Hole itself – submits the listener to a rush of skin-peeling steam so forceful it could well be blasting up from Satan’s cauldron, and, most striking of all, “Cwm Cneifion” picks disembodied growls out of damp descending cloud. As distant as some of Powell’s locations are from Twll Du itself, the devil’s kitchen seems to impart its mysterious impact upon the entire area, drawing all within the valley to its mouth just as a black hole chews up space.
It is not all doom and gloom, however, as tracks such as “Y Garn,” “Cwm Bochlwyd” and “Castell y Gwynt” offer relative serenity. Even so, as they all arrive in line at the end of the record, you feel as though you’ve paid a princely sum for the respite, especially as the menace gradually reemerges at the album’s close. “Cwm Bochlwyd” is a beautiful layering of airy organ drones, and easily the most peaceful five minutes you’ll spend in Powell’s vision of the valley. It represents the glory of the landscape well and is dangerously hypnotic; as the clouds part and the sun dances of the cold, clear water in its central lake, you’re well forgiven for easing off.
Appearing as claws scraping through from the netherworld, the rocks at Castell y Gwynt lend themselves easily to folklore, so it falls quite naturally upon “Castell y Gwynt” to provide an unnerving reminder of the mountains’ treachery to finish the album. As the album’s haunting cover image illustrates, as quickly as the clouds part, they can darken and descend, and there can be no setting better than these famous spikes to acknowledge that fact. Emerging peacefully like a continuation of its predecessor’s tranquil lull, the ten-minute track is the most dynamic of the series, shifting uneasily as gasps of cold air swell and engulf. By the end, as the pressure increases to a skull-crushing extreme, you realise you fell for it: over your shoulder, Twll Du calls again.