Against the Day by Land of Kush stands alongside Constellation’s finest releases, including the work of Godspeed You! Black Emperor,
members of which both play in and record this ensemble.
Somehow I did not imagine I would be excitedly ordering an LP from the Constellation site ever again, as we had drifted apart, but here I am doing just that. It feels like a summation of their work. It is accessibly melodic, phenomenally broad in scope, beautifully played and urgent. If asked to choose one word to describe the label’s best releases, that would be it: Urgent. During my late teens, half of my vinyl collection was taken up by their releases; some have endured while others have not. Black Ox Orkestar, Exhaust, Hangedup, Polmo Polpo and Frankie Sparo have all made massively under-appreciated records that I would still encourage people to seek out.
‘Iceland Spar’, with its brooding violin (sounding very much like a kemenche) over synth, multiple percussionists and a soft sung incantation recalls the work of Grails, but the beating heart immediacy and lyricism of Land of Kush places the group just this side of the line that divides the realities of this world from the psycho-spiritual journeys that Grails embark upon. Not that either of the groups are exclusively confined to those parameters.
I had assumed that Sam Shalabi was singing on this fourteen minute piece, before giving more focus to the oud playing he has finely developed since the simple but evocative style I last heard on Shalabi Effect’s self-titled double disc opus. But the notes indicate that he sticks to his guns: oud and electric guitar, with the occasional languid, heavily reverbed solo, leaving the vocals and lyrics to others. His oud often sits beneath the compositions, forming a solid bedrock, not demanding of the attention enough to be called a ‘lead’ instrument.
Land of Kush is an orchestral unit made up of thirty musicians that Shalabi assembled and conducted through his compositions, initially for a performance at the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in Montreal, Canada. The five songs that make this album's hour-long duration are named after chapters in a Thomas Pynchon novel, with which the album shares its title. Constellation invited the group to their studio to document the music, and I’m damn glad they did. Big praise to Efrim Menuck for his gifted, delicate production on this record, I would balk at the task of mixing these recordings.
Shalabi, a man who has often referred to himself as Osama Shalabi, describes some of his earlier music as "protest music about Arabophobia". That confrontation of the Western world’s greatest ignorance (in admittedly extensive company) is present here, but it makes its stand by allowing the rich and varied cultural history of the Middle East to speak for itself, so to speak. The geographical source of these sounds and modal structures may initially appear to be from one part of the world, but they stretch from North Western Africa to Eastern Afghanistan and from the Balkan States to the source of the Nile. If you consider the psychedelic leanings that twist the light on much of Shalabi’s work then we’re talking even further afield.
The closest entry in his discography is Shalabi Effect’s Pink Abyss, the closer focus on melody and traditional structures thread the two together despite the more dreamlike spaciousness of that excellent record. There is not much of the multicoloured improv-collage of Unfortunately or the opiated stargazing of the self-titled album on Against the Day. As a composer it seems that Shalabi has absorbed and moved on from the predictable (but effective) structures that were the touchstones of his earlier work, which often relied on the sparse/dense dynamic or a thick simmering tension. A dramatic quickening of pace over the course of an instrumental is a technique often employed by players of the oud, bozouki or saz. Perhaps the freedom of arranging thirty highly skilled musicians has alleviated the pressure of ‘carrying’ the songs, allowing him the elevation he requires to maintain an understanding of what the creation looks like as an imposing whole. Initially I questioned the use of the word ‘orchestra’, but they earn it.
Trilling flutes, bulbous brass and woodwind recall the Klezmer derived post-rock of Black Ox Orkestar filtered through the swirling skronk of free-jazz. The string players veer from warped classicism (Rue du Depart) to flailing folk and fluttering, bleak solos (The Light over the Ranges). The pounding dervish that is the album's title track sounds like the emergence of peace from chaos in a galloping art-punk frenzy, then falls softly back into a rigid tension. I hoped to steer clear of mentioning war, but recent events (or the last century perhaps) make it impossible for this album to not evoke the destruction of the lives, homes and the culture of ordinary people in the region(s). The trance like repetition of the songs is not so hypnotic to permit the listener to drift off, but floats them close enough to the border of transience to give them birds-eye view of the beauty and wisdom of the old world tangled with oil and power. The compositions often become dirges, temporarily or extensively.
However this album does not stagnate in the mournful self-indulgence of a distant voyeur or wallow in the security of defeatism. It walks a middle-path, imbuing said dirges with a painful but vibrant search for some kind of peace and unity; Against the Day’s expressions are deeply purgative, deserving of the term “cathartic”, a term which is misappropriated so often. The singing on ‘The Light Over The Ranges’ cuts through my soul and is so moving it brought tears to my eyes, it reminded me of the arresting vocals on ‘A Lesson for the Future’ from Murcof’s The Versailles Sessions (review here).
The record makes use of the hour it spans; much of this is taken up by the twenty one minutes of ‘Bilocation’. It begins with a distant electric guitar winding back and forth in the sky like a kite, an effect achieved by a subtle use of phaser. Shalabi picks notes from brooding open tuned chords as if they were slight fluctuations in a warm desert breeze. His interest in Arabic folk-pop surfaces: Molly Sweeney sings in the style of a love ballad over a playful shuffle. Occasionally she snarls like a young Shirley Bassey, alternating between fluttering vulnerability, mournful devotion and empowered passion. The beat clatters on beyond her, a warm flute solo blows the song out of the city towards the wilderness. Ten minutes of further exploration follow, including dissonant improv and eerie chamber music. The group sound big and resonant throughout the record, bristling with unamplified sonic depth. A fullness maintained by a host of instrumentation which remains low in the mix, replicating the experience of hearing a real folk “orchestra”.
Indulgence never gets a grip on the compositions; they might be rich and weighty but they are lithe enough to escape dead ends via unseen exits. Because of this the transitions flow well and form a cohesive whole, despite the fact that this combination of elements might sound a little rag-tag and thrown together to the reader. The dull predictability of what gets sold as Post-Rock these days pales in comparison with the rich diversity that the musicians who were first labelled with the moniker are now branching into. Let’s hope these members of Montreal’s close-knit musical community continue to cross-pollinate each other. Looking back, a quality which marked them out from the crowd was the audibly deep relation each had with their instrument, which bodes well for their future as musicians.
A Taste Of The Kemenche: