Tigran Hamasyan’s Shadow Theater: Brooding, Armenian-Tinged Art-Rock

by delarue

Keyboardist Tigran Hamasyan began his career as a teenage piano prodigy. But rock seems to be more his thing. His latest album Shadow Theater – streaming at Spotify – blends brooding Armenian art-rock with jazz and occasional funk tinges. Some of the songs sound like Radiohead taking a departure into Middle Eastern or central Asian sounds; other times, Hamasyan brings no mind a less jazz-inclined Michel Reis or Romain Collin. His band here draws from across the musical spectrum: drummer Nate Wood and saxophonist Ben Wendel from newschool jazz band Kneebody, Sam Miniae and Chris Tordini alternating in the bass chair, with Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabedian on violin and Xavier Phillips on cello, plus Armenian chanteuse Areni Agbabian supplying uneasily atmospheric, wordless vocals on several tracks.

The Poet kicks off the album, a toy piano intro building to what’s essentially artsy arena rock done with keys instead of guitars. Erishta, a similarly gloomy, anthemic theme rises to a dancing interlude, then slows down as the strings bring the clouds in. Likewise, the aptly titled Lament comes together slowly, Agbabian’s lush vocalese over a mist of strings and Hamasyan’s steady, marching piano.

Drip is a traditional Armenian melody done as woozily psychedelic trip-hop, followed by the Radiohead-influenced The Year Is Gone. Seafarer, a slow, spacious, vividly cinematic postrock theme could be These New Puritans with more ornate orchestration. The album’s weakest track is The Court Jester, which has the most stereotypical, mechanical Euro-prog feel of anything here.

Pagan Lullaby has another offcenter, music box-like intro and builds from there to a deep-space ambience that turns darker by degrees. Hamasyan follows that with a diptych: The Collapse, which is Radiohead with an Armenian accent, and then Alternative Universe, a shapeshifting piece blending elements of Armenian folk, mathrock and art-rock, working its way up to a long, hypnotically vamping peak.

Hamasyan reinvents Holy, by late 19th century Armenian composer Makar Yekmalian as something of a sentimental pop ballad without words. The album ends with Road Song, a lively mini-epic with a dark undercurrent, rising and falling with anxious strings, starlit piano, a tensely resonant cello solo and then a trippy, twinkly synth outro. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who’s into the heavier side of current art-rock and postrock, from Radiohead to Mogwai.