Hen Ogledd


By D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D


Cloaked in a name conjuring the myths and legends of the Old North – the region stretching from the south of Scotland to the North of England, the band Hen Ogledd have become ghost android bards on their album Mogic. Approaching technology with creativity, vitality, and a haunted feeling in equal measures, Hen Ogledd have constructed a realm in which digitized voices sing in choruses with fey spirits, Northumbrian warriors, and Cumbrian saints to steady industrial beats or dub riddims. Hen Ogledd was founded by the avant-sublime singer-songwriter Richard Dawson and the infamous improvising harpist Rhodri Davies. Dawn Bothwell later brought Hen Ogledd enchanting electronic and vocal loops with a prophetic sensibility, followed by the addition of Sally Pilkington, whose singing ranges from pop-ethereal to melodically channeling a medieval ancestor of Prince’s alter-ego Camille.


Each hailing from historically different tribal regions of the Old North, the musicians on Mogic challenge the idea that the ancient world was rife with magic, while the new is infiltrated by cold logic. The tracks on Mogic create new phantasmal blends of images and ideas that draw upon the mystical and technological. Hen Ogledd draw upon longstanding traditions mysticist-futurist artistry, for example the composer/keyboardist bandleader Sun Ra, whose work some call Afrofuturist. Yet, it would be better to call both Hen Ogledd and their forebearer Sun Ra alike cultural-phantasmists – artists of any background who delve deeply into their own cultural histories and across cultures as rich sources of thought, feeling, and metaphor. Hen Ogledd’s album Mogic creates sorcerous computational phantasms in the form of ten tracks: bardic sagas that act as parables, poetic reflections, and koans.


For instance, the track love time feel reminds us of the duality that technology can be tender/tender technology can dehumanize. The song begins with the sound of a breathing apparatus, perhaps a respirator for scuba diving or an iron lung. Such intimate devices work in lockstep with our bodies, extending into our mouths or down our throats, to keep us a step away from death. Rhodri Davies’s lush contributions musically suggest that such life preserving technologies reflect both human fragility and ingenuity. Information and communications technologies are also tender technologies; nowadays people use them everyday to convey our love, spend our time, and transmit our feelings. We are offered access to these technologies as apparently free commodities, only to realize that it is us, including our intimacies and tender moments, that have become the commodities. Our love, our time, and our feelings are made in to data, at best stored and unused, at worst sold and abused.


sky burial also bears a dual warning: technology can preserve/our data-bodies can outlive our physical bodies. The saga invokes data in the sky, the metaphor of cloud computing. Sally Pilkington’s human voice sings of searching and waiting, to be responded to by her computer voice singing the type of melody that sounds broadcast from the heavens. The metaphor of cloud computing is the promise that we can access information and use computers that are not in front of us. If we trust those faraway computers (in the sky like clouds the metaphor goes) and they are secure and strong, our data is safe. Yet, the cloud data can live beyond our needs and even our lives to haunt us. Petty mistakes of youth, forgiven in days past, are perpetually accessible now. In vulnerable moments, memories of loves ones lost may appear to haunt our data feeds. Each of us leaves behind an unwitting legacy with every click.

problem child casts Richard Dawson as a leonine rock fabulist, reminding us that technology is a part of our ecology while asking if the ecology feels necessary, but dangerous, what can we do? This allegory is a tale of the connections between humans and between us and our artifacts. To a wary Northumbrian outsider, the computational spider web is entrancing and mysterious indeed, bardic ghosts crave a piece of the action no less than anyone else. We risk our long-lived data bringing us face-to-face with our regrets, yet choosing not to use these technologies disconnects us from the masses that do – shall we plunge into the data or stay on our mountaintop, aloof from the mysteries and problems? tiny witch hunter observes that technology operates at scales from the submolecular to the cosmological. The human quest for knowledge now opens questions about what we should do and whether we should do it, even if we can. Sally Pilkington chants a primordial computer funk melody, hypnotically planting a suggestion in the listener’s brain: mapping humans and the universe alike can seem like an anime fantasy, seductive and damaging.


Other songs continue to reveal twain sides of Hen Ogledd, gwae reged o heddiw and dyma fy robot channel the youthful new through an old tongue. first date and transport and travel explore the differences between the physical and the virtual, the material and the imagined. Hen Ogledd don’t just tell us, they move us. On the second half of the album, technical industrial rhythms propel listeners to other realms. Oral poetry tells of magic carpet rides and rocketships. Yet, for Hen Ogledd the mind can take us further: meditation can transport us from nothingness to astral planes and back; lucid dreaming submerges us in the surreal, from sarcophaguses to signals. A further paean to history, Dawn Bothwell ferociously fronts a repurposed song by Newcastle’s own black metal progenitors Venom; with lyrics the same as its name, “welcome to hell” can only be sung from the perspective of a devil or the damned.


Mogic concludes with the crystalline etheldreda. Its critique is one close to my own heart, artificial intelligence systems recognize and emulate human capacities (from abstract patterns to emotions), yet are we really just training ourselves to be fooled into believing that systems actually can reason, have emotions, sensations, or meaning? Through their own technology tempered sound Hen Ogledd’s ghost android bards show us another way beyond producing technologies of the artificial; their sound is technology of the authentic. Hen Ogledd’s album Mogic ultimately echoes our human doubts, regrets, fragility, and tender needs. Humanized by the lore of the Old North, logic becomes magic.



D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D., is Professor of Digital Media and Artificial Intelligence at MIT. He is appointed in both the Comparative Media Studies Program and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He founded and directs the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) to invent socially impactful new forms of interactive narrative, VR, gaming, and digital media art. He is the author of the book Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013).