Psychedelic Balkan Grooves from Choban Elektrik

by delarue

Choban Elektrik made some waves last year when they debuted as Electric Balkan Garage, a psychedelic keyboard rock band playing traditional Balkan melodies. Since then keyboardist Jordan Shapiro and bassist Dave Johnsen (both formerly of Zappa cover band Project/Object) and drummer Phil Kester have made a mind-warpingly original album and have continued to play live around New York, with a gig this Thursday the 15th at 7:30 PM at Littlefield opening for the Debutante Hour, who’re doing their album release show. Choban Elektrik’s album is creepy and intense and like nothing that’s been made since probably the late 70s, maybe earlier. And the acts who were playing this kind of stuff back then, like Estonian acid rockers Suuk, were basically metal guitar bands. Music doesn’t get much more original than this.

And this isn’t fusion: it’s rock. 95% of the time, Shapiro carries the solos: no slaphappy Dave Matthews bass, no retarded brontosaurus drums. While the tempos here are sometimes cruelly tricky, Kester keeps it steady: he could go in a metal direction if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Likewise, Johnsen plays warmly and melodically, sometimes doubling the keyboard line as the band hits a crescendo on a turnaround, occasionally firing off deep, earthtoned chords or tremoloing a note for extra menace. Shapiro is a monster player: fast and precise when he’s playing a clarinet line as he does on the album’s tenth track, dark and murky on the organ, surreallistically bright and edgy on Fender Rhodes. He also plays murderously slithery, roaring Balkan metal guitar on the album’s fifth track, similar to Eyal Maoz’s adventures in this kind of music but with a more nimble rhythm section and more of a corrosive noiserock edge.

The opening track sounds like the New York Gypsy All-Stars (or similar Turkish or Bulgarian electric gypsy jazz outfit) on opium, basically a one-chord jam with Shapiro’s organ doubling guest violinist Jesse Kotansky’s biting lines, the violin throwing off microtonal sparks before going off what sounds like a Macedonian tangent, the organ taking on a funky approach like Jimmy Smith gone to the Balkans. That’s just the first song on the album, by the way. A similar track later on begins with accordion carrying the melody and winds up with┬áthe organ swirling around.

Eva Salina Primack lends lush, otherworldly vocals to the echoey, dub-flavored second track, wah-wah electric piano giving way to sweeping organ and then back again. She also sings the poignant eighth track with aching but intricate microtonalities as it morphs from a pastoral violin tune, to funk, to echoey, prickly psychedelics. The darkest track here is amusingly called Mom Bar, trippy atmospherics rising to a torrential organ crescendo and a noisy outro that’s downright macabre. Their version of Steve’s Gajda, by Raif Hyseni goes from burbling to blippy to biting with a surprisingly bluesy organ solo and then downwardly spiraling violin, steadily speeding up to where everything eventually collapses on itself: it’s the most metal moment here. There are also a couple of bouncy Mediterranean-flavored numbers, one with trippy gamelanesque sonics, the other a funk song with growling bass and wah-wah Rhodes piano. The album ends with what’s essentially a big roaring powerpop instrumental with a tricky Balkan tempo. Right now cdbaby has it; watch for an album release show sometime this spring.

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