It took two and a half years, but an album finally came over the transom here that’s so strange and otherworldly and surrealistically captivating that it qualifies as exotic. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo‘s new release Three Mountain Pass mixes and sometimes mashes up traditional Vietnamese sounds along with an opera piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, plus a reinvention of an iconic, macabre classic. Her main instruments are the dan tranh – which has the ringing, sitar-like, bent-note resonance of the Indian sarangi, but with fewer overtones – and the dan bau, which can swoop and dive like an acoustic version of a theremin, or carry long resonant lines like a violin.
She opens the album with a solo dan tranh diptych, slowly unfolding in the Asian pentatonic scale and then working its way into an insistent raga-like interlude. Erik Satie’s creepily immortal Gnossienne No. 3 gets an expansive interpretation, the lingeringly eerie melody grounded by ghostly chords played on a bass dan tranh. On the minimalistic title track, Vo sings her own arrangement of an 18th century Vietnamese poem with a brittle, impassioned expressiveness over hypnotic hang (the Swiss steel drum) and percussion. Vo joins with the Kronos Quartet on Green River Delta, a folk-inspired opera piece written by Luu Thuy Truong, rising to a dancing pastoral sway that blends hypnotically with the spiky dan tranh melody underneath.
She concludes the album with a trio of originals. Mourning, an elegy for those maimed and killed during the Vietnam War, mixes dizzyingly sepulchral layers of echoing, sirening, multitracked dan bau. The Legend illustrates a Vietnamese creation myth, its spacious atmospherics interchanging with an intricate web of dan tranh, percussion and keyboards. Vo plays t’rung, the South Vietnamese bamboo xylophone, accompanied by boomy Japanese taiko drums on the final cut, Go Hunting, a mysterious but lively jungle theme. All of this has a strangely soothing effect: it isn’t likely that there’s been another album that remotely resembles this one released (in this case, by Innova) in the US this year.