No Image Records BR016, 2015, DD & CD album, 53m 4s
£6+ DD £9+ CD
The Karda Estra brand has been built on continued invention and creativity: across the preceding eleven albums composer Richard Wileman has consistently and rigorously poked around at the fault-lines of his practice, finding ways to surprise the listener that nevertheless cleave to an established and instantly recognisable aesthetic. Although Karda Estra’s discography features very high standards of musicianship, and some amazing guest musicians (most notably and repeatedly the wonderfully warped avant-rock guitar savant Kavus Torabi), one pretty consistent feature of the work has been that it is more composer’s music than player’s music. This is not to say that it doesn’t afford opportunities for creativity in performance, but it is always about the ensemble rather than the individual, and I imagine that the sheer coherence of Wileman’s vision tends to inhibit his collaborators from pursuing any excessively tangential flights of fancy. Where particular voices are featured as soloists, it is usually simply to supply the melody line in an orderly homophonic texture – and this relatively stable, conventional aspect of Wileman’s arrangements is often a welcome anchor in a context where many musical dimensions, such as tonality, are disconcertingly up for grabs. This has been a pretty mind-expanding oeuvre to date, but Karda Estra records are anything but psychedelic freak-outs. Strange Relations is certainly not that, but it is, to my ears, the most player-oriented record that Wileman has produced so far. This, it seems likely, is due in large part to his principal collaborator on this release, the drummer Paul Sears, who is best known for his work with The Muffins. When Wileman shared an early version of part of the ‘Strange Relations’ suite with me, my first question was ‘who’s that amazing drummer?’, and the broader sound of the arrangements is adapted to his freewheeling, improvisational style; in particular, Wileman is considerably more risk-taking and expressive in his bass work, which has been largely functional historically – it’s still not a particularly prominent voice, but Sears clearly needed someone to step up and joust with him! The Muffins are often compared to the 1970s Canterbury bands, and clearly have their taproots in the jam-based waters of jazz rock, while Wileman, at least in his Karda Estra guise, which is all I know of him as a musician, has espoused a more classically derived approach: this record represents an effective fusion of the two, a ‘third stream’ of avant-rock, if you will. Eat your heart out, Gunther Schuller.
I have described a basic Karda Estra texture several times in the past, a polite rock rhythm section garnished with a somewhat pastoral-sounding chamber ensemble, and that sound is present on Strange Relations, but the instant recognisability of the music is better ascribed to its characteristic harmonies here, with somewhat more variation in the way that they are orchestrated than I recall hearing across a single album previously. (The reader should note that my impressions are subjective, and that I have not listened exhaustively to the back catalogue while writing this review!) Perhaps in compensation for a greater density of musical incident, the textures here are relatively sparse; the opening waltz, ‘Strange Relations 1’, is built from only the core resources of rock music, with nary an oboe or violin in earshot, while ‘Strange Relations 2’ (which is Torabi’s spot on the album) adds only a trumpet to this arsenal. Both of these pieces’ melodies (and, notably, the bass-work in parts of ‘Strange Relations 5’) employ a phraseology that is audibly indebted to the language of jazz, although neither would strike many listeners as being situated within that (or any other) generic style. The longer, more formally complex ‘Strange Relations 3’ is in familiar territory for the Karda Estra aficionado, with the dark drama of its gestural vocabulary, and its wide ranges, of timbre, textural density and register, but it owes its narrative contours entirely, once again, to bass, drums, guitar and keyboards – with Wileman’s electric joining Sears’s virtuoso drumming in supplying its considerable variety of surface quality. Although the ethereal quality of the music, with the characteristic shifting sands of its tonalities, is familiar from previous releases, Wileman’s use of chamber music resources is extremely restrained here, with their place taken by the far more interactive voice of his principal collaborator, who drums both for the ensemble, and like an ensemble. The result is that the entire album sounds as richly orchestrated as any of Wileman’s more densely scored arrangements: all he really needs is a single vocal or woodwind at the top of the texture to evoke the atmospheres that were more painstakingly constructed on New Worlds, for example. The two pieces on the record that are not collaborations with Paul Sears, its conclusion, if we are to interpret the whole as a single work, are more akin to the established Karda Estra method. ‘The Wanton Subtlety of Monna Tessa’, which fuses baroque elements with a very British sounding psychedelic chamber-pop to produce Strange Relations’ most accessible moment, has a relatively stable harmony, and identifiable points of cadential rest, although there is still a sense of quantum superposition around its several candidates for the position of tonic…
That tonal indeterminacy remains the key aspect of the listening experience, frustrating any tendency to resolve the music’s harmonic sequences into a directional narrative; it’s akin to reading a piece of prose where the noun that appears to be the object of one sentence is repurposed as the subject of the next, flowing on without any sense of period or semantic closure. This is never what Wileman is saying, but is always a transitory impression in an unceasing process. This approach produces a dreamlike quality, constantly dragging the listener back to the affective present, even when repetitions hold out the promise of ‘destination’, since the intervening harmonies do not impart to them any sense of necessity, let alone inevitability. These compositions, while deriving much of their vocabulary from its procedures, eschew the conventional rhetorical devices of tonal harmony, which are founded on the commonplace view of a musical surface expressing some ‘deeper’ structure. How deeply ingrained this view is can be observed by reflecting that denying a work possesses such a deep structure almost automatically sounds like a criticism. The alternative position was put very nicely by Igor Stravinsky, in relation to the work of the conductor Herbert von Karajan: ‘I do not mean to imply that he is out of his depths… but rather that he is in my shallows—or call them simple concretions and reifications. There are simply no regions for soul-searching…’ What the music on Strange Relations implies is not that it is superficial, but simply that its complexity resides in the sounds of which it is made. They do not express something else; they are not signifiers, pointing away from the music at some other more fundamental meaning, but stuff, happening in your ear right now. If the work implies a soul to be searched, it is a soul that is constituted by the succession of impressions and perceptions of which the music forms a part, not an abstraction located in some metaphysical space. By refusing the structuralist myth, the sense of a Real beyond our phenomenal world, Wileman makes his music all about the only real we have access to; this has been implicit in much of his music, in the way that it employs harmony and melody, but it is powerfully reinforced here by the immediacy and expressivity that Sears brings to the project. There is clearly a great sense of the strange about this music, a sense of otherness, and one of the affordances of such a sense is that the listener is able to enter into it in the imagination, to move away from the prosaic in a way that will strike some as contradictory to my suggestion that this is fundamentally a music of the real. But as with the speculative fiction to which I devote much of my time, the value of this tension, and the power of this extraordinarily complex and beautiful record, is to illuminate the way in which the ‘real’ (of which the prosaic is only a part) is constituted: in the strange relations between our perceptions and our attempts to make sense of them.