Believers Roast BR011 2013, CD album, 1h 14m
£9 CD £5 DD
It’s far from unusual for me to be beaten to the scoop on the music I’m sent to review, for various reasons, but not least because I like to spend a good deal of quality listening time trying to get inside the music before I set dactyls to chiclets and start spouting off. Little surprise, then, that Classic Rock Presents: Prog beat me to the punch on the Mondo Profondo review, giving me the opportunity to rip off any pertinent observations they may have shared. ‘Unclassifiable’ isn’t a characterisation with which it’s hard to concur, nor is it news to me (or anyone with a functioning pair of ears) that Richard Wileman throws musical materials from a wide variety of sources into the Karda Estra stewpot; but one comment that I found interesting was to the effect that ‘if Wileman thinks this music’s cinematic, the mind boggles at the movies he’s been watching’. Well, I have to agree that a Karda Estra album would probably not do very well as the soundtrack to a film such as The Chronicles Of Riddick or Love, Actually, but I have always used the ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film’ line as a shorthand for Wileman’s general area of creative practice; the powerful narrative and atmospheric effects of his largely instrumental music produce, for me, a strikingly visual impression. The movies in question may not exist, and may not be of the usual sort, but one thing I’m sure of is that they are extremely intelligent, moving and absorbing films that I really want to watch. Similar to the soundtracks of commercial movies? No. But cinematic? Very yes. This CD comes with two albums on it. If you listen to it straight through, then they just run together, and you’ll miss out on the arc of each work’s affective narrative, so make sure to hit pause for ten minutes or so after track six. New Worlds was the first Karda Estra album I heard or reviewed, and it never got a CD release of its own, so it’s good to see it unleashed into the wild here. This also makes for exceedingly good value; you are buying one full-length album, and getting another one entirely for free. New Worlds is brilliant, but I won’t say too much more about it here as I’ve reviewed it once already, and I want to focus on the colossus of fuliginous beauty that is Mondo Profondo.
Mondo Profondo is altogether darker and less reassuringly tonal than New Worlds. The earlier album was rarely what any sane listener could describe as diatonic, but its atonalities largely registered in my ears as articulating a sequence of major and minor keys, the transitions between them occasionally modulated to some small degree, but more usually abrupt, and arriving too thick and fast for any hand-holding. The music on Karda Estra’s latest opus is more densely chromatic, quite emphatically so, given the brutally dark cluster voicings with which the piano opens the first track, ‘On Those Cloudy Days’: a series of hammer blows serve notice that sonic intensity is not the exclusive preserve of the guitar-slinging contingent, and that sturdy speakers will be required. The piece as a whole is a forbidding gatekeeper to the album’s many pleasures; texturally it draws on the materials of both rock and chamber music, a dialectic that visits various extremes through the course of the album, but in this instance extends mainly to the incorporation of a drum kit into arrangements built largely from resources uncommon in rock. There is an element of the pastoral in the sound, something that I have observed through most of the Karda Estra oeuvre, which comes principally, I think, from the way Wileman combines his strings and woodwinds, but there is none of the comfort one might associate with such an impression; instead that intimation of cosy security serves only to contrast and emphasise a sense of, in ‘On Those Cloudy Days’, quite terrifying malevolence. Imagine the classic Hovis ad, populated not with anything so obvious as zombies, but with dark figures reminiscent of Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. The succeeding piece, ‘Mondo Profondo I’ is a stark contrast, in stylistic terms at least, and is as close to overt humour as any music I’ve heard released under this banner; if anyone wanted to imitate Wileman’s innovations here we could have a new genre on our hands, black bossa or something like that. Rhythmically it sways like bossa should, but its bass is so chthonically spelaean, and it is framed by such unsettling interludes of styptic atonality that it offers few hints of the sun-drenched viscerotonia conventionally associated with bossa nova. The sheer tonic and conceptual density of the album as a whole seems to have infected my vocabulary; critic retires injured…
I’m not given to assessing albums track by track: I usually attempt to build up an overall picture, treating them as single large artworks, and responding to the experience of hearing them in their entirety. I began with descriptions of the opening two tunes largely to illustrate the breadth of Wileman’s compositional approach, to which mill more or less any musical materials are potential grist. Supplementary to the general texture palette, which might be adequately characterised as ‘dark chamber rock’, there is an outbreak of more overt rock stylings, in the form of the unmistakeably fluid (and beautiful) electric guitar work of Kavus Torabi; Torabi is not only an established collaborator, incidentally, but has also provided Karda Estra with a new home on his Believers Roast label. ‘Mondo Profondo II’, the track which features him, exhibits more of a rock groove than is obvious elsewhere, and refers quite explicitly to 1960s soundtrack music (albeit in 10/8), in the same manner that ‘Mondo Profondo I’ does with its bossa groove and wordless female vocals. And these explicit references aside, the impression of this music as a soundtrack is strong; the structure of each piece encourages a complex and episodic affective response, sometimes seeming to represent parallel viewpoints, in the way that an editor might cut back and forth between scenes in a movie. The sheer specificity of the emotional tenor also inevitably invites the listener to imagine a narrative, simply because these are not the sorts of feelings we are generally accustomed to find engendered in music that is presented to us as an end in itself. This stuff is scary, epic and dramatic; to me, it comes across as powerfully programmatic, and had Wileman included some kind of written narrative to accompany the music it would have seemed quite natural. There is a story here; one which, although it ends relatively calmly in the solo piano composition ‘Mondo Profondo III’, does not seem to have ended well, so much as subsiding into exhaustion, submission or death. There are some relatively confirmational harmonies in this final piece, but they are adrift in an astringent, and only contingently tonal universe. The joy of this album is not the joy of a horror movie, however, which is usually a cartoonish romp through a landscape of generic tropes, but the pure precision of its evocations, the economy with which it plays you. Its power springs not from its dissonances and its chromatic contusions, which are merely the colours Wileman has chosen to paint with; rather it is those colours that draw their power from its arrangements’ sere beauty and subtly managed textural topographies. Mondo Profondo is a truly extraordinary album, a masterful piece of work, and an overwhelmingly immersive emotional ride. Now will somebody please make this bloody movie, so I can find out what happened?