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Amarok - 2007 - "Sol de Medianoche"

(65:12 / Progrock Records)


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TRACK LIST:

1.  Sephiroth 4:17
2.  Hermits 10:46
3.  Xiongmao-I 1:13
4.  Wendigo 7:12
5.  Duet for Hang & Bass 2:10
6.  Mama Todorka 2:03
7.  Ishak the Fisherman 12:04
8.  Eight Touts 3:03
9.  Midnight Sun 13:34
10. Xiongmao-II 0:41
11. Abaddon's Bolero 8:07

LINEUP:

Robert Santamaria - keyboards, accordion; ac. guitar, 
-	Turkish saz, Iranian kantur, autoharp; 
-	Xylophone, assorted percussion
Marta Segura - lead & backing vocals  
Manel Mayol - flutes; didgeridoo; b/v
Mireya Sisquella - saxophones 
Renato Di Prinzio - drums
Alan Chehab - bass
With:
Branislav Grbic - violin 
Pere Andreu - trumpet, flugelhorn 
Marta Riba - backing vocals
Pablo Tato - electric guitar

Prolusion. One of my two favorite Spanish bands (along with Kotebel), AMAROK have recently changed their label affiliation. This brand new album, "Sol de Medianoche", is their first release for Californian ProgRock Records, while most, if not all, of the group's previous CDs came from the precincts of Mexico's Luna Negra label. To all appearances the band's website is still under construction, and since I don't know which of their several recordings are demos, I won't venture to present you with their official discography. However I am well familiar with each of the three predecessors of the hero of this occasion, namely "Quentadharken" (2004), "Mujer Luna" (2002) and "Tierra de Especias" (2000), all of which are official releases. When reading the press kit, I was surprised to learn Amarok means Wolf in Eskimo language.

Analysis. It is enough to look over the band's principal lineup above to have an idea of the sonic saturation of this "Midnight Sun", as all the instruments listed there are indeed widely used on the album. Furthermore, the first three of the guest musicians are each featured on several pieces unlike, well, the electric guitar which is only part of two tracks, the title number and Eight Touts, though it's only the latter piece where that instrument appears to be a really important component of the music, either playing a key role on its own or sharing the lead with keyboards or violin. Free of any singing, Eight Touts combines sympho-prog arrangements with those belonging to Folk Rock, which seem to be based on a few traditional Gael dances. Duet for Hang & Bass is a curious thing, sketching a kind of duel between bass guitar and something resembling a steel drum in sound. The remaining two instrumentals, Xiongmao-I and Xiongmao-II, each bring together European and Chinese music colorations using acoustic guitar and flute. Now it is the turn of the songs, of which only the shortest one, Mama Todorka, is instantly accessible. Its introductory section features a female choir, whose jovially exclamatory singing to the accompaniment of congas arouses a picture of Africans dancing round a ritual campfire. Later, when the congas are out, and the violin, organ and drums are in, the tune leaves that exotically-ethnic realm and takes the shape of the World Music style with a quaint mixed Afro-Balkan flavor, though the supporting organ solo is done in a traditional prog-rock mode. I'd never say that the striking originality (which has always been one of the main trumps Amarok have up their sleeve) of the described pieces is their only virtue, but nevertheless, being too short to hold any large-scaled maneuvers, they are inferior to any of the longer tracks, almost all of which range from seven to thirteen-and-a-half minutes. The only unoriginal piece in the set, Abaddon's Bolero is an interesting interpretation of the eponymous composition from "Trilogy" by ELP. Classic Art-Rock by means of Folk Rock and World Music, this track only occasionally reveals genuine sympho-prog movements, but then:-) it stands out for its powerful female vocalizations. The only cut where the accordion takes in places a really dominant position, it features plenty of other folk instruments as well, at times rather vividly calling up Ravel's Bolero - perhaps because there are many more Spanish tunes here than in Emerson's creation. While singing isn't something that each of the yet-to-be-named pieces is lacking in, all those without exception contain a lot of vocal-free arrangements too, besides which the instrumental background in their vocal sections is usually so diverse and intense alike that I had to revisit them to understand that it was still not enough to find all the subtle nuances there. Progressive World Music at its best, Sephiroth has as mystic a feel to it as the Cabbala itself, but you don't need to be a hermetic scientist to catch the piece which flows like a wonderful Eastern fairytale. Still curious to know what it is literally about? Have a look into the booklet where each of the songs has its English translation, though I don't think you will derive anything comprehensible from Sephiroth's lyrics, unless you're indeed a full member of the Masonic Lodge. Beginning with an Eskimo shaman's growl, Wendigo turns out to be the richest in sax solos, which however doesn't mean at all that the sax is a central driving force there. Anyway, it's just due to the said matter that Wendigo has in places a pronounced jazz feeling, though on the other hand, no genuine impromptus can be traced here, as well as anywhere on this CD (unlike the band's previous recordings). Overall, that piece seems to be blending quite well with the idiom of Symphonic Progressive; otherwise I should regard "A Passion Play" (Jethro Tull's sole album where Ian Anderson plays saxophone) as a jazz-fusion creation, which I don't. While all the longer tracks are compelling, the absolute winners would be the longest three, Hermits, Ishak the Fisherman and Midnight Sun, each of which exceeds 10 minutes in length. Since it's impossible to describe these in detail, I am forced not to go beyond their pan-musical characteristics. They are presented as 3-, 5- and 6-part suites respectively, but there are in fact much more different thematic sections on each, while the number of transitions is arguably beyond all calculation. Stylistically however, these are rather kindred creations, all reminding me of a cross between Symphonic Progressive, Folk Rock and World Music with a lot of Turkish, Persian, Spanish and Celtic tunes; even those rooted in the music of Mexican Indians can be heard in places. As for the epic compositions' most striking peculiarities, the title track stands out for its acoustic guitar solos: while being usually interwoven with basic textures, those run almost all through it, which is also typical of the first half of Hermits. Finally Ishak the Fisherman has a relatively long interlude where there is nothing but the magical sounds of Turkish saz. Curiously, Ishak means a donkey in Russian, so I naturally imagined that long-eared animal, sitting on the bank of a river with a rod in its hoofs.

Conclusion. Be it a connoisseur of Amarok or one who just sympathizes with this ensemble, I very doubt anybody will reject "Sol de Medianoche" just because of the band's further withdrawal from both Prog-Metal and Jazz-Fusion on the hand and their closing in with World Music on the other. The two basic components of their music, Symphonic Progressive and Folk Rock, still appear to be the dominant styles in their work, but what's most important is that the music on this album is both as highly original and intriguing as probably ever before, let alone its compositional perfection or the mastery of its performers. Highly recommended.

VM: July 13, 2007


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