The little nation of Armenia seems to have more good musicians per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past year is singer/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan’s Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music, streaming at Spotify. Hovsepyan plays guitar, duduk and percussion and sings in Armenian in a strong, expressive baritone, backed by bass, percussion, oud, cello, and traditional reeds including duduk and zurna. What differentiates this collection from more traditional versions of these tunes is the imaginative arrangements, with edgy, crescendoing solos from throughout the band.
Armenian music is notable for blending the enigmatic microtones of the Middle East within melodies in the western scale. Minor keys are prevalent, along with a lot of what’s essentially implied melody: these themes are simple, stark and striking. The album’s opening number, a dirge, features rising star duduk player Arsen Petrosyan along with intense, otherworldly vocal harmonies. Another Armenian reed star, zurna player Harutyun Chkolyan is featured on a more lively later track.
The spare, stately, syncopatedly swaying Nare features understatedly incisive, spacious oud work from the great Ara Dinkjian, up to a surprise trick ending. Hoy Nar is a robust work song – a riverboat tune, maybe? – updated with echoes of 90s trip-hop and a long, bracing, uneasily trilling duduk solo.
Garegin Arakelyan’s austere bass riff mingles with Havard Enstad’s sparse piano in the ballad Es Gisher, building to aching close harmonies between strings and reeds. Hovsepyan’s voice rises to an angst-fueled peak over a menacing low string drone in Ani; then the strings build a storm on the horizon. The gracefully dancing, austere Tal Tala features breathtakingly spiraling tar lute from Miqayel Voskanyan against a brooding backdrop.
The moody ballad Gulo sways slowly over an elegant 6/8 guitar/bass groove over resonant, distantly troubled piano: it’s the most Lynchian track here. Drdo opens with a darkly pensive exchange between Hovsepyan’s emphatic vocals, cello, frame drum and duduk, slowly coalescing with an overcast grandeur. The Immigrant blends dancing, Balkan-tinged strings and echoey, Romany-inflected vocals, with a spaciously mournful duduk solo.
A tense low bass drone, a melancholy cello solo and Hovsepyan’s misterioso flamenco-tinged guitar fuel the slow, troubled, cinematic sweep of Lusnyak Gisher. Likewise, the closing cut, Sareri begins with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics and then settles into an elegaic sway. Considering the history of Armenia and how many cultural treasures were lost in the holocaust there a hundred years ago, and before, it’s no surprise how dark most of this music is. But you don’t need to speak Armenian to be drawn into this unsettling masterpiece.