Buda Musique, 2017
Taos's opening tune, Helicobtir, is easy to love, and a great choice for an opening track. As Efrén has indicated in the liner notes, the term "Helicobtir" is used in some Arabic dialects in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria to indicate a dragonfly. Undoubtedly, it can also reference the flying machine, and the dualistic nature of the flying machine -- it is a wondrous flight that can evacuate you from trauma, but also, in this era of conflict, can rain down death and destruction. The melancholia of this tune's melody features some wonderful highlighting by Bijan Chemirani, and is ultimately punctuated by solos from both Stelios and Efrén. Efrén's solo features an intriguing moment of slides on fretless guitar (toward the end of the clip below), which seems to be executed by quickly moving within the same general area of tones, but across two different strings. Although Efrén's solo is steeped in sensibilities he's acquired through the study of music from the middle east, there also seems to be an artistic freedom, and an air to it that is reminiscent of beautiful solos in jam tracks such as Pink Floyd's "Cluster One".
Starting with a beautiful intro, the melody of 'Imeres Siopis' is given even more gravitas when it drops a whole step down and is accompanied by the other instrumentalists. Before long, 'flamenco link' that is discussed in the liner notes is apparent, as the structure of the tune is based on phrygian chord cadences well-used in flamenco music -- i-VII-VI-iv-V; in this case: D minor - C major - B major - G minor 6 - A major. The flamenco fire and duende is in full flow for the finale of the piece.
The first tune inspired by eyes (this time of cats), 'Sîn û zer', is awash with steel-string instrumentation, until it drops its tonic (from E down to D at 1:56) without changing its melody. Just at the right moment, where the tune's melody evades phrasings in 5/8, the melody and pace leaps into a sprint like a startled deer in the forest. With Petrakis's flashy Pontic-sounding melodies on the lyra, thus begins a riotous and progressive jam session full of exploration. A highlight of the album is here, in how Mr. Chemirani's wit with rhythm interacts with the melody line. To close the tune, the initial melody gets repeated under this new tonic, almost like a character in a movie plot that returns home a wiser man after many years of insane adventures and travels. It's not only a matter of genius musicianship and profound technique -- which all three of these musicians have -- but a matter of arranging that which makes a composition's nature sink its hooks in deep enough to never be removed.
Moving into the realm of Kurdish rhythms is 'To Katehon,' with the shuffle of the daf providing the backbone to the tune after a serene intro solo on the Afghani Rebab. Although the melody line has 4 parts, the real joy of the melody is the latter, where the wisdom of Efrén comes into play. Although it is the most sparse part melodically, it is the nature of the tremolo within a crescendo of volume that brings a sense of firmness and urgency to the melody.
Stelios' Pentozolis carries on the flame that Efren's Kontylies started, and brings it to newfound levels of riotous energy. The fire behind his bow is even fiercer than what he played when he was younger. Tracks like 'Sitia', from his 2003 album, Akri Tou Dounia, show plenty of speed, but without as much ornamentation as he plays here in his Pentozolis. A Pentozolis is a tune used to accompany a Cretan style of dance, and as such, I would highly recommend that you put any fine dining ware away before dancing. A tune this vivacious ensures that plates and glassware will get broken.
Efren's mastery and experimentation with the Hurdy-Gurdy has given me a respect for the instrument, which I didn't previously have. It's also worth noting the role it plays on the album: the hurdy-gurdy, combined with Petrakis's stringed instruments, offers a sound with a richness that is akin to a chamber orchestra. Although I'm not exactly sure how all the sounds of '100 Ulls' are created, it gives of the vibe of a heavy metal 'orchestra', with a stomping beat -- initially counted in threes, and accenting the first and last of those three beats, like a Scandinavian polska folk dance tune.
And by all means, if you considered the percussion as mere accompaniment, sink your teeth into 'Zayandeh'. Named after a river basin in Iran containing evidence of paleolithic hunters from some 40,000 years ago, Bijan Chemirani's composition on the zarb, daf, and riqq drums is a whirlwind of rhythms, seeming to float around counts of 15 beats. A composition of this depth can take a well-trained musicologist or drummer a couple of weeks to figure out. Efren and Stelios initially provide some nightmarish sounds to given the rhythm some suspense and further its intensity, which eventual culminates into a melody line, and an outro played by Efren on the harp.
Zayandeh's nightmarish atmosphere and storm of drums conspicuously leads to the dream landscape of 'Nekya' -- which is the album's masterpiece by Stelios. Although Stelios's playing is ornate by itself, there is just a moment toward the end of the tune where Efren's harp playing emphasizes notes that allude to a harmony upon the melody. Just a moment, though. Nothing could be a more suitable backdrop for a masterful melody than Chemirani's purring finger rolls on the zarb drum, which gives the tune a weary-but-resilient foundation -- all suitable for the myth of Odysseus, which inspired the tune. In the myth, Odysseus has a death and rebirth, receiving wisdom he needs to return home safely by talking to dead in the Underworld . The act of consulting with ghosts of the dead is what a Nekya (often spelled "Nekyia") refers to. One shade of that wisdom is the need to harness the vanity in one's own ego. As Achilles tells him in the Underworld:
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead."
The works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung reference this myth (and other myths or folk stories like it), and indicate the importance of the transformational power that comes with self-awareness. Such stories are almost always accompanied by a low point of "going deep within" -- a katabasis -- whether Odysseus in the Underworld, or Jonah and the whale, or Dante's Inferno. The immersion leads to the acquaintance with one's shadow, the shattering of some illusions about the self, and the resultant 'more whole' individual. Within an individual psychological context, Jung had put it:
"Nekyia [is the] introversion of the conscious mind into the deeper layers of the unconscious psyche [...] [It is not an] aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis ...[with] its objective being the restoration of the whole man..."
During two of the 5 phrases of Nekya's lamentable melody, Efren's harp accompaniment goes silent -- a wise decision, as the modal nature of Stelios' tones ventures into microtonal waters. This also gives extra attention to all of the minute details in Stelios' style: faint ponticello, quick mordants, a fleeting moment of ghostly harmonics, and an attention to volume that is not easy to find elsewhere. Stelios' lyra cries alone, like Odysseus, for two portions of melody during the tune, which perfectly embodies despair. Nekya is a tune that seems to draw out a sense of timelessness -- a sense of old wisdom at work -- and to a certain degree it is reminiscent of Ross Daly's, "χελώνα στο βυθό του κόσμου μάθε με να κινούμαι αργά", or "Tortoise at the bottom of the world, teach me to move slowly."
One observation about the album is how the final tune, Nekya, and the first tune, Helicobtir, have the same tonic note, as if they were cut from the same thread of musical fabric. This also means you could play the album in continuity and feel that the 'story' keeps moving along -- a perfect analogy for the stories and ideas in the album's booklet which indicate where some of the inspiration for the compositions comes from.
Instrumental music may not be everybody's 'thing', but at a certain point in our lives, I don't think some of us listeners feel the desire to be told by a lyricist or vocalist what to think about -- in addition to the presented music. If you've got a good set of ears, the music itself is enough. In the hands of highly-polished, life-long committed musicians, the compositions speak for themselves, and yield a lifetime of enjoyment. In this era of international 'pop tunes' (often created by men in their 60's, sung & performed by women in their 30's, and with lyrics that appeal to the sensibilities of teenagers), I would like to think that we can take the bulk of that material and throw it in the trash, without being reluctant. The soul and the craftsmanship in albums like Taos makes too strong of a case to be bashful about saying so. This will be yet another goldmine album (in a series of goldmine albums by the trio -- both individually and collectively) for those who reach it. 'Taos' is what results when folk musicians are in their prime.
You can find and get regular updates on the Trio of Stelios Petrakis, Efrén López, and Bijan Chemirani on Facebook, and their music is available digitally, but I would recommend buying hard-copies of their albums from the actual publishers, since the liner notes elaborate on the experiences and mechanics at work in the tunes.