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Archive for February 17th, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. The Cave (23:35)
2. White Light, No Heat (11:28)
3. God’s Elastic Acre (18:16)
4. Sati & The Trainman (11:14)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – analog and digital keyboards, electric guitar, effects
Chuck Oken, Jr. – analog, digital and modular keyboards, electronic percussion, effects, loop processing and reconstruction

With:
Richard Pinhas – guitar loops (1-3)

Ukab Maerd’s The Waiting Room, the second of Djam Karet’s side projects to be  released in 2010, is a very different affair from Mike Henderson’s song-oriented White Arrow Project. The brainchild of Djam Karet’s founding members Gayle Ellet and Chuck Oken, Jr., with legendary French musician Richard Pinhas guesting on three out of four tracks, Ukab Maerd (“Baku Dream” spelled backwards – a reference to DK’s 2003 album A Night for Baku) is a vehicle for the creation of hypnotic soundscapes inspired by the European electronic music of the Seventies. The two musicians describe the album’s content as mind music that draws its inspiration from dream language and Surrealist art – a definition that fits it to a T.

While neither an expert nor a dedicated listener of progressive electronic music, I recognize its importance both in historical and artistic terms, and The Waiting Room provides a fine example of the possibilities offered by technology. Even if its running time of about 64 minutes (divided into four tracks, none under 11 minutes) might turn it into an ordeal for people who are not used to listening to music produced almost exclusively with electronic instruments, the album undeniably possesses a mesmerizing quality, at least if taken in judicious doses. As can be expected, the main points of reference are German giants such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as their followers from other European countries (including Pinhas’ former band Heldon). Most of the album was recorded live at two different performances by Ellett and Oken, with Pinhas’ parts added subsequently.

Many people are put off by electronic music on account of its supposedly cold, overly cerebral nature, unlike warmer, more down-to-earth musical forms such as rock or blues. While this may in some respects not be entirely wrong, the music presented on The Waiting Room intrigues and captures in a sharply different fashion than guitar-driven rock, progressive or otherwise. As the pointed out in the press release, it is music that appeals to the mind rather than the body, conceived to be listened to with some degree of concentration, and therefore always at risk of fading in the background if used as a soundtrack for other activities. With a minimal amount of percussion, and guitars manipulated in such a way as to become unrecognizable, the music ebbs and flows with hypnotic regularity, while all kinds of electronic sound effects enhance the moods and atmospheres created by layers of synthesizers.

“The Cave” evokes the titular place with uncanny accuracy, eerie sounds suggesting machinery or sloshing underground waters, the keyboards surging in waves or subsiding with a movement that may come across as monotonous, but also subtly unsettling and quite fascinating. The following “White Light, No Heat” alternates between majestic keyboard surges that create a sense of keen tension and disturbing industrial noises, replaced in the second half by tinkling yet vaguely robotic keys; while “God’s Elastic Acre” unfolds in a cinematic sweep underpinned by clanging, echoing sounds, droning and bubbling noises, while the solemn tone of the keyboards takes on a more upbeat, Eastern-tinged note towards the end. Album closer “Sati and the Trainman”, the more accessible number by far, revolves around a pulsating synth line paralleled by a slower, more atmospheric tune that suggests a train running through a darkened, slightly sinister landscape.

Needless to say, devotees of this particular genre will be able to show The Waiting Room the appreciation it deserves; while those listeners who can only process small quantities of almost completely electronic music might find it a bit too demanding to sit through the whole 64 minutes, and decide instead to break the album into separate segments. On any account, The Waiting Room is a fine example of vintage progressive electronics, and –  even for those who, like me, have never been keen followers of electronic music – it is very much worth a listen.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/ukabmaerd
http://www.djamkaret.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1 Never Be The Same (3:18)
2. Rage (4:37)
3. Lasso (5:17)
4. Stone Wall (4:19)
5. Emergence (4:40)
6. Starting Over (4:44)
7. Can’t Wait Anymore (4:18)
8. Equinox (5:34)
9. Goddess (4:32)
10. Continuum (6:28)
11. Read My Mind (5:02)
12. Summertime (4:37)

LINEUP:
Mike Henderson –  acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, hand and electronic percussion, mandolin, effects
Caroline Dourley – vocals
Jack Housen – vocals, bouzouki, guitar (11)
Chuck Oken, Jr – drums
Dion Sorrell – electric cello, bass (5)

The year 2010 saw the release of two albums by side projects of members of historic US prog outfit Djam Karet, along with the band’s live-in-the-studio album The Heavy Soul Sessions. While Chuck Oken, Jr and Gayle Ellett explore electronic progressive music with Ukab Maerd,  guitarist Mike Henderson is responsible for this largely acoustic, song-oriented White Arrow Project. According to the accompanying press release, the album took many years to complete, and, though all its participants live in the same Southern Californian town, this is the first time they have actually worked together on the same project. While this lends the album a warm, endearingly ‘homemade’ feel, light years removed from the contrived nature of so many mainstream productions, White Arrow Project sounds definitely more streamlined than most of Djam Karet’s output. Not that it should come as a surprise to long-time fans of the band, who are by now quite used to its members’ need for branching out and expanding their sonic horizons – as also witnessed by the two albums released in the past couple of years by Gayle Ellett’s acoustic side project Fernwood.

Though the album is solely credited to Henderson, who lends his distinctive guitar style to the compositions (as well as playing most of the other instruments), the musicians involved (including Chuck Oken, Jr. on drums) form a very tight unit, whose contribution is essential to the fabric of the sound. Employing both male and female vocals, White Arrow Project is a quintessentially melodic offering,  with quite a few catchy, almost poppy moments (such as closing track “Summertime”) and a distinct lack of hard edges. The album lacks any numbers longer than 6 minutes, most of them featuring vocals and keeping a steady, relaxed mid-pace. The press release mentions influences such as Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Brian Eno, and the moody, atmospheric nature of the  instrumental tracks may indeed bring the latter musician to mind. The similarity between some of the songs and Kate Bush’s output is also quite remarkable, particularly as regards the presence of the bouzouki’s distinctive metallic twang. On the other hand,  I have found the Dead Can Dance comparisons somewhat more tenuous – since neither of the vocalists (while perfectly adequate) reaches the stellar level of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, nor does the music possess the same deeply haunting quality.

Out of the 12 tracks featured on the album, most involve singing of some sort, which, in my view, often detracts from the musical aspect instead of enhancing it as it should. Caroline Dourley, with her well-trained, well-modulated voice, only sings on a handful of tracks, the majority being performed by Jack Housen – whose contribution on the bouzouki is an essential component of the album’s overall sound. However, I found his vocals rather disappointing, at times reminiscent of Gordon Haskell on King Crimson’s Lizard, though not as grating. The presence of a truly commanding male voice such as the aforementioned Brendan Perry would have lifted the level of the album from merely pleasant to actually memorable.

Not surprisingly, then, the true highlights of this album are provided by the three instrumentals, showing that the group of musicians are indeed a finely-tuned unit. The Eastern-flavoured “Emergence” (where the Dead Can Dance comparisons surface most strongly), “Equinox”, with its acoustic/electric interplay, and the hauntingly percussive “Continuum” meld gentle, folksy strains and New-Age-tinged electronics, creating soothing textures and intriguing soundscapes. As to the vocal tracks, I found those performed by Caroline Dourley more impressive than the ones featuring Jack Housen (with the exception of the muted, hypnotic “Stone Wall”). On “Lasso”, Dourley’s subdued vocals forms a backdrop for the instruments rather than the other way round; while the Celtic undertones of “Can’t Wait Anymore” may bring to mind Clannad’s more recent output.

A lovingly crafted album by a group of gifted musicians, White Arrow Project is likely to appeal to those who like folk- and ambient-tinged music with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts – as well as those who are looking for some respite from the demands of the weightier instances of prog. With a very manageable running time of 57 minutes, it is a very listener-friendly disc without being overtly commercial, performed with passion and skill. On the other hand, its pleasant but not quite memorable nature might cause it to be overlooked among the glut of progressive or quasi-progressive albums that are flooding the market.

Links:
http://www.djamkaret.com
http://www.myspace.com/djamkaret

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