November Music Pot Pourri: Zedashe Ensemble, All Them Witches, Twin Within

World music can take us on imaginative journeys to faraway and long ago lands. One could visit the  former Soviet republic of Georgia, but one can only get a taste of its pre-Soviet past by listening to the Zedashe Ensemble. Their latest release Intangible Pearls  (Cowbell Records) is of the variety often called "folkloristic," which means it's a scholarly interpretation of ancient cultural traditions from those who no longer live that way. But don't think buttoned-down academia. Quite the opposite; the Zedashe Ensemble channel bygone village life, right down to their costumes and three-part harmonies rendered in melodic scales seldom used in modern times. Even the name is old; zedashe references an earthenware jug in which wine was aged. Most of the singing is done a capella, but when instruments are used, they too come from the past: the pandari, a type of lute; the chonguri, a flute more strident than melodic; and the ch'ibini, one of numerous goatskin-covered hand-held drums used by the ensemble. The vocals are what one might get by crossing Tuvan throat singing's over and undertones with the unbridled primeval feel of Balkan music. The album is old in another way—it's paternalistic in the sense that just four of its 25 tracks feature female leads. The gender breakdown is heard stylistically. Male songs such as "Alilo Sashabao" or "Elena" feature lead voices in unison, with background singers providing a chant-like accompaniment of contrasting tone and drone. At times it sounds like Gregorian chant adapted for the mountains. Women's vocals—"Lale" is a good example—tend toward call-and-response style. Check out the instrumental dance tunes as well; instruments tend to pulse rather than establish melodies. Toss in frenzied drumming and you get something that's part dance and part village riot.  The Ensemble's Website has several videos you can sample.

I was reading James Parker's piece in The Atlantic on the fading of heavy metal music as bands such as Motorhead, Slayer, and AC/DC age-out (and die). Parker ought to give a listen to Nashville-based All Them Witches before he rushes to judgment. Their first full-length album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (New West Records) suggests there are sparks of life left in death metal. At their best, ATW reminds me of Black Sabbath with occasional Allman Brothers-like seasoning. I suppose some might say that this band is a hybrid of metal, grunge, and Goth rock and that's probably correct, but if you're looking for crunchy power chords, ominous bass, and pounding drums, this is your ticket. Lead vocals are given over to bass player Michael Parks, Jr. but a song such as "Dirt Preacher" is the norm: a big cacophony of loud songs that largely drown the vocals. Even songs such as "Swallowed by the Sea," which opens as if it is an incantation, quickly give way to discordant walls of sound. Like metal in its heyday, the music itself isn't overly complex because it's all about painting the walls black. This isn't the sort of thing I'd want to hear everyday, but a little fury is cathartic and the band's stripped down loudness makes a change from processed fare that plays it safe.

Speaking of overly processed, I liked the Hamilton, Ontario duo Twin Within (Steve McKay and Alex Samras), but I didn't love them. Their debut LP/EP (eight tracks) Horizontal Lines (Hidden Pony) has its moments, but not enough of them. Canadian reviewers have compared their matched timbre vocals to performers such as the Righteous Brothers, the Walker Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel, but that's overly charitable as they lack the soul of the first, the grit of the second, or the poetry of the last. The lineup of which they most remind me is Ireland's Snow Patrol, though as a duo they can't replicate the contrasts and textures that makes it anodyne vocals sting as well as soothe. "Faraway Car Rides" is typical in that drifts toward a lullaby mood in which vocals and tune wash over us like a perfumed breeze. The effect is hypnotic, but also indistinctive. The most appealing track on the album by far is "Bernie." Insofar as I know, it has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders, but it's enigmatic enough that one could infer it as homage. More to the point, it's a slice of sunshine pop that, in my view, most flatters the duo. Maybe these guys ought to watch some Wham! videos.     

Rob Weir

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