New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Revisiting Karavan Serai’s Gorgeously Slinky, Psychedelic Middle Eastern Themes

Karavan Serai‘s haunting, hypnotic album Woven Landscapes came out in 2015. Considering how lush this blend of original Iranian and Middle Eastern-inspired music is, it’s almost a shock to find out that there’s just two guys in the band. Narayan Sijan plays the stringed instruments and the percussion, and sings in a strong, resonant baritone. Carmen Rizzo plays keys and supplies electronic textures that are often very enveloping. The record is streaming at Bandcamp.

These two like slinky one-chord jams, and always find a way to make them interesting. A slow, swaying, warmly dusky theme, The Journey, opens the album. How trippy is this? With incisive oud and tar lute awash in Rizzo’s echoey sonics, it’s plenty psychedelic, but just as joyous as it reaches the end. The second track, Schirin is completely different, a broodingly dramatic if equally serpentine Arabic-flavored tune where the oud is a lot more prominent.

River Bend starts out with even more epic grandeur and grows more surreal and atmospheric, with Sijan’s multitracked tar lute, oud and buzuq echoing each other. His allusive, steady cascades in The Road to Hijaz tease the listener, as he only uses the iconic Arabic scale on the turnaround. Tingly buzuq contrasts with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics in the first part of Caspian Sea, then Rizzo adds an unexpected trip-hop rhythm while Sijan’s Arabic phrasing gets more animated, but more hypnotic as well.

He digs into majestic raga-like chords as Rizzo adds graceful piano and synth accents over drony atmospherics in Upon My Own Hand. Desert Water, a diptych, begins with a hazy ambience and morphs into the album’s most lighthearted track: appropriately enough, since it’s about a mirage. The duo close the album with the alternately echoey, gritty, aptly majestic High Mountain, the closest thing here to Rizzo’s other Iranian band, Niyaz.

A Sizzling Live Set of Free Jazz in Williamsburg Before the Lockdown

The glut of live albums recorded before the lockdown doesn’t seem like it’s going to abate anytime soon. And that’s just as well: this blog has been agitating for years for more artists to get wise to the value of live recordings. For one, they’re infinitely more economical than studio projects. And for musicians who aren’t located in free parts of the world, what better way to energize the fan base than a sizzling live record? Guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, bassist Simon Jermyn, violist Mat Maneri and drummer Gerald Cleaver had the presence of mind to record their February 24, 2019 Williamsburg show and release it as at Untamed: Live at Scholes, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

This is free jazz for people who like thoughtful interplay, edge and groove. Throughout the set, the acidic interweave between Goldberger and Maneri is such that it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what. Case in point: the hammering, hypnotic interlude about midway through their first number, presented here as an uninterrupted thirty-six minute track.

After the quartet coalesce gingerly to introduce it with spare bits of allusive Middle Eastern melody, then a hint of qawwali emerging, Jermyn hits a steady swing pulse and the race is on. Maneri takes centerstage to fire off a deliciously enigmatic, tersely microtonal solo. Goldberger throws shards and knotty postbop runs into the fray, Jermyn clustering and Maneri returning with an anxious intensity. Cleaver, running a colorful floating swing on his hardware, is back in the mix as you might expect at Scholes Street Studios, where everybody else in the band is using an amp.

There’s hazy volume-knob resonance from Goldberger in tandem with the viola as Jermyn runs a loopy riff. Cleaver gets some welcome time to himself, getting the boom or an approximation thereof going with his toms, the rest of the band building a devious swordfight with their swipes and slashes. Jermyn subtly hints at stoner boogie; winding tensile lines from guitar and viola over a cleverly altered Diddleybeat from Jermyn and Cleaver grow more aggressively skronky.

Everybody diverges down to echoes and more menacingly sustained wafts. Cleaver’s refusal to lose the groove, no matter how quiet he gets, is the key to the record. The rainy-day soundscape when he finally drops to a cymbal mist, Jermyn playing voice of reason to Goldberger’s knotty, restless lines while Maneri adds psychedelic harmonics, is just as much fun as when the band is really cooking. Likewise, the brooding viola solo, hypnotically pulsing drive and devious echo effects on the way out.

They fade up a much shorter number, presumably an encore, on the brink of a bracingly assertive Maneri solo as Jermyn shifts between a folksy dance and a gallop, Goldberger in jaggedly lingering mode. The Grateful Dead during their late 60s fascination with Indian music come to mind. Won’t it be even more fun when these guys can make another live album like this – or maybe they have, and they’re just not telling us yet. In the meantime, Cleaver is scheduled to play a series of live concert recording dates with saxophonist Darius Jones‘ trio on June 6 through 8 at 1 PM in Central Park, as part of Giant Step Arts’ incredible lineup of free jazz shows. Take the 81st St. entrance on the west side, go north and up the hill about a block, follow the sound and you’re there.

Icon of Sin Put an Expertly Cynical, Smart Update on a Classic Metal Sound

Brazilian band Icon of Sin play a surreal blend of gritty, anthemic late 70s acid rock and early 80s British metal. They take the spirit of early Iron Maiden to its logical conclusion, but with more original and tuneful songcraft than most heavy riff acts. Frontman Raphael Mendes sings in English, in an operatic Bruce Dickinson baritone with a sinister wink. Beyond the drama, it’s not often obvious what he’s singing about, adding to the surrealistic factor. Bassist Caio Vidal plays with a Steve Harris snap, but closer to the ground. Likewise, drummer CJ Dubiella keeps the drive straight-ahead and uncluttered. Guitarists Sol Perez and Mateus Cantale├úno play catchy, anthemic changes with soloing that’s flashy enough to draw some blood but not so much that it becomes a cartoon. Their new album, streaming at Spotify, is one of the first rock records so far with the guts to tackle the ugly consequences of the lockdown, even if they do that opaquely.

They open with their brisk, propulsive theme song: hey, if you’re going to sin, you might as well do it iconically. The second track, Road Rage is an even harder-charging, thrashy number: run to the hills in your tricked-out Toyota. The guitar chords grow fangs but get even catchier in Shadow Dancer, which seems to be a celebration of all the things that can only be found when the sun goes down.

Unholy Battleground is a heavy biker rock tune in a Death Wheelers vein, peaking out with a tasty, bluesy solo: a war-on-terror critique, maybe. Nightbreed is just as grimly anthemic, a big backbeat tune with tinges of 80s goth.

Is the lickety-split, Motorhead-inspired Virtual Empire a cynical commentary on the lockdowners’ attempt to take all human interaction online, where they can spy on you 24/7, Chinese Communist style? It would seem so. The band keep things in the here and now with the even more corrosive Pandemic Euphoria, which could be the UK Subs at the peak of their metal phase. The album’s best and most epic track is Clouds Over Gotham, shifting between gentle, early Genesis-tinged interludes, a fullscale stampede and nightmarish symphonic angst…but if Mendes’ prophecy comes true, we will rise again!

Arcade Generation is a steady, midtempo metal take on Stiv Bators’ old observation about how video games train the kids for war. The band turn Japanese for a moment in The Last Samurai, with its elegant folk-tinged intro and rapidfire, bellicose Asian riffage. They nick a classic early 80s Maiden sound for in The Howling and stick with it for the closing cut, Survival Instinct. Let’s hope they survive to make another album as good as this one.