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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Djam Karet

The Heavy Soul Sessions

Review by Scott Montgomery

The latest (and much anticipated) Djam Karet release is another smashing success for this stalwart California prog powerhouse.  The sound is great dynamic classic Djam Karet, here returning to the live-in-the studio straightforward, unadorned approach of some of the band’s earliest albums, but with a greater degree of compositional sophistication.  The entire album was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs or sonic manipulation, giving it a great sense of live immediacy and intensity.  But, the album is anything but sloppy – the playing is tight and tasteful while remaining fresh and lively.  This band has been at it for quite some time now – twenty-five years by my reckoning.  They sound as good, if not considerably better, than on their excellent early releases.  The main difference is that Gayle Ellett has turned to playing keyboards exclusively.  This does mean that there is a much stronger keyboard presence - and a very tasteful one at that!  If anything, the sound is a bit fuller with the full-force five-piece lineup.  Mike Murray has joined on to keep the dual guitar element, and he adds quite nicely indeed – a most welcome addition to the fold.  Mike Henderson wails stupendously as usual and plays some great texture as well.  Rhythm section Aaron Kenyon and Chuck Oken keep it locked solid and dynamic, punching or drifting as necessary.  In short, if you are a fan, you will dig this one immensely.  It fits in well with two of my favorites by these guys – The Devouring and A Night for Baku.  But it links nicely with their previous release, the excellent Recollection Harvest.  Like these last two albums, The Heavy Soul Sessions reveals how the band’s material seems to be getting even more rich and sophisticated.  Clocking in at over an hour, we are treated to six meaty, substantive pieces that cover quite a range of moods, textures and sonic palettes even within the same song (a Djam Karet specialty).  

In short, The Heavy Soul Sessions positively smokes, combining full-bore shredding intensity and layers of rich texture and shifting atmospheres.  It carries us through a magical mystery tour of shifting musical topography – from the power and punch of the opening numbers, to the dreamy realms in the middle, and on to the outright majesty and dynamic variation of the last two numbers.  The album could be thematically broken down into three sections consisting of two numbers each.  But, such a distinction is essentially arbitrary, as the entire album holds together as a unified musical voyage, however varied it is.  My head has banged, my soul has soared…Heaven and Hell…and I was never bored.  The Heavy Soul Sessions is highly recommended for those who like excellent, tasteful and also intense instrumental proginess.  If you are a fan already, then you want – no, you need - this album!  If you have not heard them, and like the Crimsony side of prog then perhaps it would be a good place to begin exploring this band's output.  The Heavy Soul Sessions is one of my absolute favorite releases of the year and is certainly on my top five Djam Karet list (and this is saying quite a lot!).  After a five year hiatus since Recollection Harvest, it is indeed good to have them back!  I am already looking forward to the next installment of the power, dynamism and majesty that is Djam Karet.  Thank you gentlemen!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Hungry Ghost

“Hungry Ghost” is a good opener for the album – rip-roaring from the get-go.  A churning rhythm, punctuated by nice organ riffage, underpins some fearsome guitar playing – both in terms of the main melodic passage and some ferocious shredding.  It isn’t exactly metal, but it sure hits hard.  Dropping down to provide a brief respite, the band kicks back in with a syncopated stomp.  This ghost clearly feeds on energy…and the table is abundantly set.  Variations in coloration, particularly Ellett’s shifting (supernatural) keyboard textures keep it mixed up while maintaining its consistent power and punch.  This unabashedly rocking opener sets the stage for an album of serious intent, performed with great fire and passion.

The Red Threaded Sexy Beast

That potent introduction is followed by the equally forceful “The Red Threaded Sexy Beast,” which also begins with hard-hitting crunch…almost to the point of metal as it would even support a good head banging.  Just shy of thirteen minutes, this one is another roller-coaster juggernaut of dynamic variation – a signature of Djam Karet’s compositional complexity.  Dropping to a primordial swamp of swelling sounds evoking polymorphic creatures, we seem to be cast into the setting of some sci-fi epic.  Oken’s mildly rolling beat brings us slowly from this delicious morass to an Ozricy erpland, but one that is most distinctively Djam Karet, particularly in that it soon rises to a driving space-jam with evocative guitar firepower and atmospheric keyboards.  Returning to the stomping opening theme for a brief reprise, the number comes full circle as the beast consumes its tail.  It may or may not be sexy, but it certainly is a beast.

Consider Figure Three
After that surging one-two punch, we drop into an amorphous space, with foreboding swelling sounds providing a slow tidal movement beneath an evocative, treated, female voice that seems to incant a mystic realm.  A male voice enters, reciting a biological discussion delivered with the no-nonsense monotone of a medical school demonstration lecture.  “Consider Figure Three” is undoubtedly the oddest bit of music on the album.  It introduces the band’s effective use of found sound as a key textural element in their sonic palette.  Ominously atmospheric, ebbing and flowing, it conjures the more dark ambient side of Djam Karet.  It provides an almost eerie, but most effective change in dynamics after the driving intensity of the album’s first twenty minutes.  The other side of the band’s aesthetic palette is fore-grounded here – providing a yang to the ying so thunderously asserted in the first two numbers.  It is as though Suspension & Displacement has met Burning the Hard City to demonstrate the full range of the band’s dynamic possibilities.
The Packing House

Gently transitioning into a more placid atmospheric realm via Kenyon’s tasteful bass harmonics, the band moves into its longest number - “The Packing House,” clocking in just shy of the thirteen minute mark.  We are in the midst of the quieter side of the album’s flow with a dreamy soundscape….that fades off before returning with a delicately syncopated rhythm that is slightly redolent of the softer side of Discipline-era Crimson.   Henderson’s tasty, sustained guitar takes over the top end, adding a beautiful lift that highlights one of the most sensuous passages of the album (now the beast has gotten sexy).  Again, there is a rich ebb-and-flow to this almost dreamy atmospheric space, marked by great variety and texture on the keyboards, at times employing the majestic mellotron.  Subtle variations in tempo and structure keep the number ever-changing without breaking the cohesion of the piece.  There is great artistry in fashioning a number that simultaneously adheres to itself organically while maintaining an ever-shifting sensibility that keeps it consistently interesting.  Indeed, this is one of the strongest numbers on the album.

Dedicated to K.C.

But it just keeps getting better.  A very, very tasty version of Richard Pinhas’ homage to King Crimson “Dedicated to K.C.” underscores Djam Karet’s own Crimson sensibilities.  Extended to nearly ten minutes (three minutes longer than the original), Djam Karet’s cover reveals the band’s reverential homage coupled with a willingness (and ability) to explore and expand upon even canonical works of the genre.  This is less a “cover version” than a dynamic rendition, and a gem of an homage it is!   There are very few bands who can take on the subtle majesty and force of the Pinhas/Heldon catalogue and do it justice without feeling derivative.  Djam Karet is one such group that seems positively made for this, as it fits in perfectly with their own dynamic creative output.  This inspired version of Pinhas’ masterpiece most effectively serves to mirror Djam Karet’s own place within this Crimzoid tradition.  The tune would have worked well as the opening track, as it demonstrates much of the variety of Djam Karet: From heavy staccato intensity and blistering guitar work to sensuous majestic beauty.  There is a disciplined mobility that brings to mind the intense variation in circa 1973-4 King Crimson.  Swelling up in a gradual surge anchored by Ellett’s simple yet effective sustained organ, the signature four note guitar riff announces the song before the band drops right into the syncopated body of the piece, layered with fierce alternating guitar leads, exquisitely atmospheric mellotron and organ, deliciously retro synthesizer passages, a solid rhythmic basis punctuated by tasteful drumming.  Building to a ferociously ripping crescendo, the piece drops to a brief sonic respite before moving to the final section.  This billowing coda demonstrates the band’s great capacity for rich texture, highlighted by the splendid dual guitaristry of Henderson and Murray’s e-bow work.  This final three-minute section is the most glorious and evocative passage of the album – soaring with an exquisite beauty that gives me goose-bumps.  I would have bought the album on the basis of these three minutes alone!  (Fortunately, the remaining sixty-plus minutes live up to the same high standards).Nonetheless, the passage from the seven to nine minute mark in particular has already become my most frequently played two minutes of music this year (and this is saying quite a lot!).

Djam Karet has recorded this song previously (in 1993) – released on the splendid Cuneiform cover-compilation Unsettled Scores.  This earlier version is considerably rawer – in both performance and sound.  It is a very nice performance to-be-sure, but one that is positively eclipsed (to my ears) by the power and majesty of the “updated” version included on The Heavy Soul Sessions.  Here, Djam Karet take a great song and positively own it.  Now, I am dreaming of the next step – a version in which Richard Pinhas plays with Djam Karet….that is a delicious thought!  And given Pinhas’ fortuitous appearance on the recent Ellett-Oken (Ukab Maerd) ambient-esque release The Waiting Room, perhaps such a fantasy is not outside the realm of possibility.  One can hope.

The Gypsy and the Hegemon
The album closes with “The Gypsy and the Hegemon,” another exquisite number rich with variety of tempo and coloration.  We begin at some dream-scaped Paris café, with an accordion-like waltz-figure providing a completely different sensibility from the rest of the album. As we settle in for a quiet café-au-lait, the band enters with a lovely, gentle tempo marked by some fine e-bow texture. Around a minute and a half in, the tune drops into a remarkably Camel-esque bit with a lyrical flute-like keyboard melody interspersed with a big fat e-bow figure.  At one point, everything stops and we are left suspended in air like Wiley Coyote hovering above a deep canyon, before we are caught by a nice spacey jam with sensuously dreamy wah-wah and a bass “lead.”  But, Djam Karet never carry a jam beyond the point of being interesting in its variation.  Not that there is a disjointed character, just that there is always motion and development.  There is never any idle noodling.  Soon we regaled by some quintessential, ripping Henderson guitar lines, as the band builds in dynamic texture and intensity before the whole thing slides back into the main theme.  Not too many bands can so fluidly negotiate a Crim-to-Camel modulation in such a short space of time.  As the song comes to a relatively abrupt end, I am left wishing that there were more.  At the end of the day, perhaps this is one of the highest compliments that one can pay an album – it simultaneously leaves one fully satisfied yet craving more.
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