As a music blogger who’s been at this more than four years, I still marvel at the fact that artists and bands would want me to write about their music. I receive a continuous flood of music submissions every week to sift through, sometimes overwhelming me to the point of despair, but every now and then some of it stands out in the crowd. One such artist is Dunkie, the music project of Welsh singer/songwriter Anthony Price. Hailing from the town of Mountain Ash in the South Wales Valleys, Price has written and recorded songs for many years, and at the end of December (2019), he released his debut album Working to Design. It’s an exquisite and monumental work, featuring 17 tracks exploring the universal subjects of life, love, the passage of time, death and loss, but also healing, hope and rebirth.
It’s a concept album, with songs partially inspired by the books and works of author Richard Matheson, but also an ambitious and deeply personal labor of love. Price has spent the past two years of his life, toiling countless long hours writing and recording the songs and meticulously working to get each track just right, as well as making imaginative videos for a few of the songs. In advance of the album, he released four of the tracks that are featured on Working to Design, beginning with “Can a Song Save Your Life?” in May 2018, and subsequently dropping another single every few months.
The songs were all written by Price and flawlessly produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Wayne Bassett at Robot Recordings in Aberdare, Wales. Besides Price and Bassett, who played numerous instruments on many of the tracks, more than 30 other musicians and vocalists performed on various tracks, making it a truly collaborative effort on a near-epic scale. Another interesting aspect of the creation of this album is the use of dramatic artwork by Welsh artist Michael Gustavius Payne. The album is dedicated to the memories and lives of many of Price and his family’s loved ones, including some of their beloved pets, one of whom (Flea) is named in a song title.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece on Dunkie which included a review of the first four tracks he released, which you can read here. But now that the album is out, it’s a revelation to hear it in its entirety, as it flows seamlessly from one track into the next like a journey through song. The album opens with “∼Introduction∼So Little Time∼“, setting the stage for the musical and lyrical beauty about to unfold over the next one hour and 14 minutes. It’s immediately apparent that Price put an incredible amount of thought and care into creating the stunning instrumental soundscapes for his thoughtful, and sometimes brutally honest lyrics. When he sings “So much to do, so little time. It’s nice to know you’ll wait a while“, we willingly follow him along on this journey.
With 17 tracks, there’s a lot to unpack on Working to Design, and I’ll try to keep my review as succinct as possible – never an easy thing for a detail-oriented writer like me. “The White Hole” has an alt-rock vibe, with layered electric guitars, psychedelic synths and a gentle drumbeat driving the song forward. To my ears, Price’s soft vocals remind me at times of John Lennon in tone and style, only a bit higher in octave. In fact, it sounds like a song The Beatles could have recorded in their later, more experimental phase. The song immediately segues into the lovely “Can A Song Save Your Life?“, an optimistic song about the healing power of music. Price explains his inspiration behind the lyrics: “The concept behind this song is trying to find a little hope; when all really seems a little lost. When the deepest, darkest moment seems to smother over you, when it suffocates you. But then the littlest gesture lifts, the smallest moment lifts, a piece of music, a film or song you love just lifts you.”
“Rabbit Hole” is a poignant song about coming to terms with the agonizing pain of the loss of a loved one. Price wistfully sings: “Tumble and fall, this rabbit-hole is funnel-webbed and soaring. I fear I’ll never reach this endless horror I fold upon myself… Another pill dissolves; I’m crawling faster to the edge. To the edge for you.” The track has a serene, rather bittersweet melody with gentle guitar, synths and percussion, and the vocal harmonies are really nice.
The beautiful and endearing video shows a large group of family and friends coming together for a picnic to remember a loved one. About the people in the video wearing rabbit masks, Price explains: “I wanted people to be wearing masks. I loved the metaphor of hiding behind many a mask. Oscar Wilde once said ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth’. The ‘dunkie’ name and music is my mask. So I wanted to represent the mask in these videos. In particular I wanted to represent them by the use of Wintercroft Masks. Each mask is a downloadable PDF template, each mask has to be created individually, and each mask can take about 2-4 hours each to create (longer if you’re me!!). Added here was the decorative design I wanted to include by adding my own song lyrics, in multiple languages (and the entire pages of Crime and Punishment) upon each mask face.”
One of the more musically interesting and lyrically enigmatic tracks is “I Don’t Wanna Die in Minnesota (Part II)“. Though I’m not sure, the lyrics seem to be about not wanting to waste one’s life: “I don’t wanna die in Minnesota. All liberties lost and the walls move in closer. ‘When I need you to jump I’ll give you the order!’ Dead diaries day to day – for how long do I stay? I’m afraid to waste my life down in Minnesota.” “I Think I’ve Been Asleep (All My Life)” is a folk-rock song with a gospel vibe, thanks to the sublime organ work. The lyrics speak to sleepwalking through one’s life, barely connecting with those around you: “Never knew your life, never knew you long. Regretting all the silence now that you’re gone. What a fool to be. Blind faith and empathy.” I really like the soulful guest vocals of Lucy Athey and Cat Southall on this track.
“∼Intermission∼an Ode to a Flea∼” is a lovely little song in honor of one of Price’s beloved departed pets. “(W.A.L.L.S.) Within a Little Love Song” is a stunning and heartfelt ode to a loved one, affirming that even though you may not say it as often as you used to, your love for them is as strong as ever: “(You know) yesterday I loved you. (Don’t forget) I have and always will. (But through) the years I spoke it lessened. (Know this) my love’s never subdued. So I’ve found these words to sing and they’re all for you, they’re all for you.” The chiming guitars and soaring vocal harmonies are gorgeous.
I think my favorite track on the album is “Ten“, an enchanting, mostly instrumental song. It opens with sounds of a bird chirping, followed by an acoustic guitar and lovely a cappella vocal harmonies. Gradually, an achingly beautiful flute (played by Tony Kauczok) and cello (by Isobel Smith) enter, accompanied by Wayne Bassett’s delicate piano keys and Price’s lovely falsetto vocals, transporting us to a dreamy state of mind. The only lyric is “I’m just working to design. Perfectly flawed…“, which Price repeats throughout the song. I’m guessing it’s his philosophy for his life, and the overriding theme of the album. The song is so beautiful and moving it brings tears to my eyes.
“1896” is an introspective look back at life, family and career, and of choices and decision made, for better or worse: “I’ve been a Father, and I’ve been a Brother. I know now that decisions may have been wrong. I have imploded and I’ve fought with self-control. I’ve seen my children grow. I’ve taken all I can from the love of this band.” The majestic orchestral instrumentals, highlighted by a trumpet played by Charlotte Jayne Goodwin and Mellotron by John Barnes, make this a spectacular song. “Sugar” is a sweet (no pun intended) love song of thanks to a partner who has stood by you through good times and bad, with unconditional love.
Another favorite track of mine is the haunting “71-41-11“, a deeply moving tribute to Price’s father, who passed away from cancer in February 2015. The song, along with the following track “The Memory Tree“, were an effort by Price to come to terms with his pain and loss, and help him to move forward. The song’s title consists of the age of his father when he died , Price’s age when his father died , and the age of his eldest son when his grandfather died  – each 30 years apart. The mournful, but beautiful song has an ethereal feel reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens.
A particularly poignant aspect of this song is how Price, through the help of another musician (Scottish musician BigRoundBaby aka Stephen McKinnon, who’d experienced his own grief over the death of his mother), managed to include his father’s voice on the track. Price recalls “During the 60’s I remember my Father and Mother made a spoken vinyl 7” ‘Record’ together when they were first dating. They went into a portable recording booth and just playfully and awkwardly sang, and coaxed each other to say words into the microphone. I remember as a teenager listening to the recording, it was very crackle but thankfully my friend was able convert the vinyl recording into a MP3 file. I wanted the song to have my Father’s voice, to keep him close by always, and I wanted it to be accompanied with my own children, his beloved grandson’s, to just create a time capsule moment.” Their voices can be heard at the end of the track. Also, McKinnon played electric guitar, bass and percussion on the track, and along with his daughters, sings backing vocals.
The gorgeous track “The Memory Tree” is a song of celebration about the power of memories, inspired by the book of the same name by Britta Teckentrup – Illustrator. An example of Price’s phenomenal songwriting are these touching lyrics: “From a child… you towered above me. You never once made me feel at all small. You’d fall to your knees, just so I’d feel the same size. And one by one these stories will climb through…A tree made of memories and full of love (for you).”
‘The Memory Tree’ by Michael Gustavius Payne
The final track “∼Closure∼1972∼” revisits the lyrics of “1896”, only this time told from a woman’s perspective: “I’ve been a mother, and I’ve been a lover. I know now that decisions may have been wrong.” It’s a gorgeous song, with lovely vocals by Jennifer O’Neill Howard, lush piano and mellotron played by John Barnes, acoustic guitar played by Price, an enchanting Glockenspiel played by Wayne Bassett and a stunning choral vocal arrangement by Matt Williams.
I cannot gush enough about this magnificent album. I realize the word sometimes gets overused, but I feel safe in saying that Working to Design is a true masterpiece in every respect. It’s quite honestly one of the most perfectly-crafted albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Anthony Price, Wayne Bassett, and all the musicians and vocalists who assisted in the creation and production of this gorgeous work have much to be proud of.