In the summer of 2008, oud virtuoso Mavrothi Kontanis released two brilliant debut albums. The first was a mix of stark classics from the Greek rembetiko underground of the the 1920s and 30s. The second, Wooden Heart, was originals influenced by the music of that era, with a similar restlessness and unease. Kontanis’ new album Ear to the Sky, with his band Mild Mannered Rebel, includes more of those plaintive, intense acoustic songs, but also psychedelic rock featuring Kontanis on – take a deep breath – guitars, bouzouki, baglama and tambouro lute. The band is playing the album release show at Drom on April 26 at 9:30; tix are only $10 and still available as of today. It’s a prime opportunity to get to know some of the songs from what might be the best album of 2013 in any style of music.
As in much of Greek music (Kontanis being second-generation Greek-American), the tempos on this album tend to be very tricky. Kontanis’ English lyrics are as serpentine as the music. While many have a smoldering, vengeful anger, Kontanis’ vocals have a low-key confidence and understatement: he lets the lyrics speak for themselves. Most of the acoustic songs set Kontanis’ oud and Megan Gould’s violin out in front of Brian Holtz’s bass and Shane Shanahan’s percussion; the rock stuff gives Kontanis a chance to be a one-man army of stringed instruments. Either way, the interplay between the instruments is luscious, whether it’s genuine teamwork or simply Kontanis’ intricately intertwining multitracks.
The album opens with a lithe, dancing acoustic intro titled Flight of Ikaros and ends with Fall of Ikaros, a metaphorically bristling lament with a long, hypnotic but biting violin solo as its centerpiece. The best song on the album is a brooding string quartet of sorts (a requiem for Kontanis’ father), sung in a richly low, suspenseful, elegaic alto by the ubiquitously brilliant Eva Salina Primack (who has a fantastic solo album of her own just out). The most psychedelic track is Dancing in My Dreams, Kontanis playing swooping, sitar-like lines over droning, dirty Velvets-style guitar distortion and a funereal bass pulse.
The menacingly nocturnal title track is a galloping, syncopated feast of chromatic minor-key guitar. Feel the Night and See You Through to the End both juxtapose carefree verses against edgy, anxious choruses, while the kiss-off anthem Don’t Need You Here works a bittersweet bucolic vibe. Mercy reaches toward a darkly seductive rembetiko ambience, while the viciously sarcastic Heart of Gold mines a psychedelic Greek folk vibe much in the same vein as Magges or Annabouboula. Rage finally reaches fever pitch in the revenge anthem The Climb, lit up by edgy oud/violin harmonies and Kontanis’ murderous lyrics. As stylistically diverse as this album is, Kontanis’ wicked chops on all those instruments connect them with a simmering, wounded angst. It’s one of the most hard-hitting, featlessly intense albums of the year.