Cyclops Records CYCL 171, 2009, DD/CD album, 42m 50s
£1+ (DD) £5 (CD)
Karda Estra occupies a fairly unique territory, not a million miles from what Gunther Schuller coined the term ‘Third Stream’ to describe, although, notwithstanding some audible nods toward its harmonic verticality, jazz is not the main constituent of its language. It’s rare that I find myself writing about music where the musicianship is as purposely transparent as it is here, but improvisation is not a feature of these sounds either, and the players are at pains to realise the compositions accurately and expressively without drawing attention to themselves. This is of course standard practice in the classical world, or rather, it is the ideology of classical performance, so invisible as to barely constitute a practice; it’s pretty unusual in the rest of the musical universe, however. Technical facility is often exploited to impress, and it is often used to guide music creatively, as its limitations suggest one particular approach over another; here it is difficult to ignore, because these recordings are realised with an exquisite precision of touch and timbre, but we are continually guided to the composition itself as the meaningful centre of the music, and the composer as the sole authorial voice, in a willing articulation of the aforementioned classical ideology.
The CD release of Weird Tales was too long ago, and there have been too many intervening Karda Estra releases for me to normally consider reviewing this album, but it has recently been re-released as a digital download through the band’s website, which affords a welcome opportunity. The composer in question is one Richard Wileman, and to all intents and purposes (so far as I can tell) Karda Estra is him. He composes and arranges the music, assembles the band, and records it. He is not exactly enigmatic about his project, but he clearly prefers to let his music speak for itself, rather than flooding his audience with videos, social-media updates and t-shirt designing competitions. His Facebook page and website say precisely nothing about Karda Estra, other than where to get the music, and this is probably a good thing, as you really need to hear it… however, I seem to have committed myself to describing it, so I’d better establish some footholds where its author fears to tread!
‘Modern classical chamber music’ is probably the fairest general categorisation I can throw at Weird Tales. Its textures are dominated by instruments such as violin, oboe and cor anglais, and its arrangements exploit its various resources flexibly, in the manner of classical music; more improvisational, ‘popular-music’ practices tend to be quite rigid about form and orchestration, which is a trade-off in return for a greater in-the-moment flexibility in what everyone can actually play. However, although the sound is reminiscent of traditional chamber orchestration, there is a far more eclectic approach to texture, and the sources of its sonic materials. There is electric guitar, bouzouki, bass guitar, synthesiser, EWI, all listed in the credits, and there are sounds whose source is pretty ambiguous; the specific timbres favoured suggest an interest in progressive rock, but the music as a whole never resembles rock in the slightest. Instead each element is laid out on the composer’s palette, and Wileman paints with them all, more or less even handedly, in textures that are variously, homophonic, homorhythmic and sparsely contrapuntal. There is singing, but it is wordless, submerged in the arrangements of ‘The Whitstable Host’, ‘Skulls In The Stars’ and ‘The Atom Age Sense Of Impermanence’. Although there is percussion, the arrangements never fall into the cliché of using it with the bass to mark out a grid for the other parts to adhere to.
Wileman marshals resources that would be capable of high drama, of driving, punchy, powerful articulations, but he keeps it all reined in closely, always seeming far more interested in silence than noise, and evincing a sense of space as defined by its own emptiness rather than the structures that bound it. Which is not to say that his music lacks passion, just that it is more contemplative than it is theatrical. Harmony is key to the meanings of his music; the narratives he presents to the listener are elaborated through transformations in texture and dynamics, in rhythm and melodic content, but most of all they are the narratives of the chord progression. They are always tonal, and although they are rarely particularly chromatic, they often modulate unexpectedly; it is a recurring theme that affirmative consonance is subject to disruption, and to melodically compelling transitions into darkness and cold. There is clearly a great deal of thought and care in the voice leadings, and however abrupt the corners these progressions turn, they are never jagged or unruly; instrumental timbre is carefully matched to harmonic development, both reinforcing its meanings and buffering its disjunctures. The music takes the sympathetic listener to some diverse emotional locations, sometimes disturbing or ominous, sometimes otherworldly; there is a sense of profound sadness frequently at play, but it is not depressing. Instead it serves as a catalyst to the listener’s aesthetic faculties, inviting us to lower our guard and feel the music’s meanings without reservation.
Weird Tales, with its title, its gothic lettering and its ethereally disturbing artwork, seems intended to evoke discourses of the uncanny and of existential darkness. It is another Karda Estra album, Voivode Dracula, that has an overt connection to the myth of the vampire, but the atmospheres of this one (or at least the atmospheres it invokes considered together with its visual presentation) put me in mind of both F.W. Murnau’s 1921 film Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. That it should remind me of a film, rather than another piece of music, is telling; this eight part composition is certainly a music of narrative progression, but it is powerfully, absorbingly atmospheric. Its effects are far from the hopeless terror an abandoned engagement with the atmosphere of the film I mentioned might induce, but it is full of a similar calm melancholy, and a weird beauty that offers to take the engaged listener far outside themself. It is an intelligent, masterfully crafted, and deeply moving record.