Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Manthra Dei - ST (album review)

Acid Cosmonaut Records is still a relatively new label, not the most prolific of labels, but of an incredibly high standard of output.  'Manthra Dei', the self-titled full-length debut from Brescia, Italy's quartet of psycho stoners, is just the third Acid Cosmonaut release (ACD-003) and continues to help cement the label's slowly growing reputation as a psychedelic stoner label that won't let you down.

The album opens roomily enough with the 11 minute "Stone Face", a song that showcases what the band has to offer: riffs and atmosphere in equal measure.  The song is a slow building, paranoia inducer.  Half way through the song things get intense.  It sounds like the soundtrack to the scene in a Swinging London exploitation film where the formerly good girl lead finds out that the drink that was offered to her by the cute boy with the long-ish hair in the sharp suit has been spiked with acid as the heated oil dances on the projector screen behind her.  It's an instrumental, a mode of operation which takes up the bulk of the album's run time.  It's not until we reach "Legendary Lamb" that we first hear the vocals of drummer Michele Crepaldi, a set-up which probably explains why there is so little of them.  But first, we have "Xolotl".

"Xolotl" is an Aztec deity associated with death, electrical storms and deformity.  I love this stuff.  You've got to love the Aztecs, only they would have a god of deformity.  And only Manthra Dei would boldly attempt to depict a god of death, lightning and deformity in a psychedelic instrumental drenched in sixties regalia.  For the curious, Xolotl is also associated with Lucifer, the morning star or Venus as it is in the heavens and in that form guided the sun into Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.  I apologize, I'm just a huge nerd for all things Mesoamerican.  The song itself was released as a digital single around two years ago and has been re-recorded and largely re-imagined for the album.  While the song may be less heavy than it was two years ago, it's also much brisker and moves at a better pace.  There's an almost jazz-fusion prog element that creeps into the playing of keyboardist Paolo Tognazzi by way of Camel or even Dave Sinclair of Caravan of Dave Stewart of Egg.  This song is all about storm-swept atmospherics with, once again, an emphasis on the ominous.

"Legendary Lamb" comes in and blast aside what has come before with the most straight-forward composition to be found on the album yet.  While on the surface the song wears the veil of a riff-centric hard rock tune with a traditional structure, it doesn't take long for the band to cast the veil aside and use the song as another showcase for their expert playing, with a particularly strong performance from guitarist Paolo Vacchelli.  It's clear when listening to "Legendary Lamb" that Manthra Dei loves playing music.  They seem less interested in writing catchy songs than they are finding a groove and sprinting over top of it.  Manthra Dei declare themselves here to be musician's musicians.

Well, for those that know me, it's no secret I'm a horror nut, so for me, the true standout highlight on this album comes in the form of the shortest, most understated track.  One gets the feeling, it's almost a thowaway kind of number, an interlude at best, but for my money, it's the climactic payoff to an enjoyable build-up.  "Urjammer" is a slow organ solo that is played by spiders descending on stringy webs to hit the keys.  That's how it sounds, anyway.  It's a creepy little 5 minute instrumental that revels in the ominous once again.  It becomes clear by this point, if it wasn't already, that Manthra Dei deals in the music of suspense, psychedelic thrillers in sound (anybody out there seen the psychedelic thriller Blow Up?  It's a great film.).  They would make good film composers, that's for sure, following in the colossal footsteps of proggy countrymen Goblin.

But, as I said earlier, in the grand scheme of things, "Urjammer" is little more than prelude to the album's big centerpiece "Blue Phantom".  At 17 minutes it dominates the second half of the album.  The song builds smartly with an ethereal soundtrack of lingering tones, pierced by blotches of sound, not entirely unlike the build-up of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" (their true post-Syd Barrett magnum opus).  The difference here is that Manthra Dei cuts the build-up short and unexpectedly punches into an uptempo workout that wouldn't have found them out of place in the Canterbury Scene of the late sixties.  It's not until after the bandhas had a satisfying workout that the building process begins anew.  Or maybe it's a demolition process as the musical declarations become more and more understated, the accents more and more muted we come to a place which sounds almost ancient Egyptian in it's rolling percussion and melodic ascending / descending string plucking.  The true hero on this number however is bassist Branislav Ruzicic who drives the entire 17 minute beast of a song forward like a slave master standing atop a 17 ton slab of stone with the thickest whip in the whole world.

The album is capped off by an acoustic reprise of the opener, "Stone Face", giving the album a sense of cyclical cohesion, but also advancement as attested by the change in instrumental approach.  'Manthra Dei' is a highlight of the year in the psychedelic instrumental world, a refreshing and satisfying 51 minutes that plays out like a love letter to the art of musicianship, the paisley world of the late 1960's and all things creepy and ominous.

Highlights include: "Urjammer" and "Xolotl"

Rating: 4/5

Total Run Time: 51:16

From: Brescia, Italy

Genre: Prog, Psychedelic, Hard Rock, Canterbury, Instrumental

Reminds me of: Caravan, Egg, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Swinging London, Tangerine Stoned

Release Date: October 20, 2013

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