Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Banco de Gaia - Maya (Original TC Review)

Mammoth Records: 1994

(2014 Update:
Bleagh, another super-duper long review from the year 2006. My God, how many of these did I write? True, it was the first proper opportunity I got at splurging my Banco de Gaia knowledge for TranceCritic, but given how many Banco albums I've gone over for this blog now (8 albums and 2 singles!), the opening few paragraphs are incredibly redundant.

What will make this review even more redundant is the fact a limited 20th Anniversary edition of
Maya's due to come out this week. Which I've obviously gone and ordered for myself. This isn't as fanboyish as it seems, since it's a triple-disc set (!!) full of unreleased remixes and live takes, plus my original copy of Maya had a digital defect on the final track anyway. At least with this old review up, I don't have to talk about the main album details. I mean, with how much I wrote here, what else is left to say?)


IN BRIEF: Early music from the World Bank.

[The opening paragraph contained unnecessary information, so I've removed it]

Of course, my enjoyment of Banco de Gaia shouldn’t be any secret to steady readers of TranceCritic. I’ve continuously name-dropped him all over the place, and for good reason: Marks’ music has had a significant influence on my tastes over the years. From the very moment I heard Shanti some dozen years ago (a different version, mind, not the one here), I was hooked for life. All those whom I exposed Banco tracks to often came to my same conclusion: the music from the World Bank was entirely in a class of its own, impossible to pigeonhole, and always captivating.

Ah yes, I can see your ‘Fanboy Warning’ alarms already flashing. Perhaps this is why I’ve held off covering any Banco releases for so long. Although we’ll never try to hide the fact any review of music will have some subjectivity, we still try to maintain an element of objectivity as far as our conscience allows. While I’d love to give Maya glowing praise for being a Banco release, the music critic in me can hear the faults and inconsistencies; if we’re to maintain our credibility, I’m going to have to point these out. But before I do that, a brief history leading up to this album (don’t worry, it’s relevant).

Before Maya, Marks was getting known through his association with the Megadog syndicate, often touring along with the likes of Eat Static. He did release a few cassette albums during those years but none could see official distribution due to many uncleared samples. However, this didn’t stop the Banco project from getting tapped for songs to be featured on Beyond’s seminal Ambient Dub series, where Marks’ profile grew exponentially. A full-length was inevitable and, in 1994, it came to pass.

But which audience was Marks to aim for? The Megadog partiers? The fans of his Ambient Dub contributions? Or should he shoot for a broader audience with the larger distribution now available? Maya has a feeling about it that seems Marks was attempting to please all parties involved. As is often the case in this situation, the end result can feel a bit disjointed and uncertain.

Opening track Heliopolis is as indicative of this as any. True, the sweeping vocal samples and exotic atmosphere is definitely a Banco trademark, but everything else comes off flat. The rhythm doesn’t have enough drive to it, and the squelchy arpeggiating synth sounds under-produced for a track where other attributes shine.

Mafich Arabi, one of the few tape-only tracks to be rescued, also has some problems, but at least the rhythm makes up for it in this case. Pretty much a straight-forward funky tribal stompfest, an assortment of drum loops beat away as chants and Middle-Eastern hooks accompany them. The chants are wonderful, easily lodging in your head so you can’t help but join in. The hooks, though, are a bit suspect. I don’t mind them, but if Middle-Eastern melodies aren’t your game, even an infectious rhythm and chant may have trouble drawing you in for the duration.

The dubby, groovy Sunspot is a pleasant diversion, but the violin solo in the middle may be a turnoff, as it sounds like it was thrown in just for the fun of it (really, Marks is good for one of these moments in every album). However, I can find no fault in Gamelah’s approach to trance. It isn’t a high-tempo song, but it doesn’t need to be. The tribal rhythms are brisk enough to groove to, and the combination of chants and spacey, sweeping synths is an effective pairing. Definitely one for the outdoor gatherings.

Still, the ambient dub material was where Banco garnered a large chunk of fans at this point, so Marks treats them to a mellow, dubbed-out bit of bliss with Qurna. Synthy pad washes, tranquil grooves, seaside sound effects, and warm melodies all come together to form a sonic treat for you to lie back to.

The final stretch mostly contains tracks from the Beyond compilations... after a fashion: Lai Lah and Shanti were both remixed for Maya.

Sheesha comes first though. I’ve never been able to grasp what Marks was shooting for in this track. The intro of it shows promise, as many layers of deep, dubby sound effects, samples, and burbly electronics are gradually added. Once the rhythm kicks in though, the plot seems lost. Nothing quite melds together like you’d think it could, and Sheesha ends up wandering aimlessly despite the strengths of the individual components.

Lai Lah, on the other hand, works brilliantly despite all the elements sounding a bit chaotic. Chalk it up to a great rhythm (probably the best on here) and some crafty sample work. A breakdown allows just the strumming samples to play with a recording of a couple’s argument underneath. As this goes on, a mournful synth melody gradually grows in prominence, finally capping off at the end of the argument before being thrust right back into the rhythm. Now that’s a unique breakdown and build!

What Marks does with Shanti may be hit or miss with listeners, as he takes the track into a kind of jam-band excursion. Each element - bassline, rhythms, vocal chants, dubby keyboards, warm pads - gets a chance to play on their own before segueing into the next while white-noise effects pulse in the background. I can see this not being all that interesting if you like your songs focused and compact, but I quite like this. Besides, as far as dubby noodling goes, this is still a relatively coherent go at it. And when the pads do make their appearance towards the end of the Shanti? Yeah... magic.

Finally we end on Maya, a collaboration with Andy Guthrie. Here, Marks gets to show off some of his prog-rock influences as he breaks out the guitar while twinkly bells and all the usual exotic soundscapes fill in the atmosphere. For what it is, this is a decent enough track, and probably one of the more unique ones in this early stage of the Banco life; it’s certainly closer in sound to current offerings than most of what’s been heard on this album.

And that’s probably something to keep in mind should you be new to Maya (the album, that is... damn, but is it ever annoying having title tracks at the end sometimes). If you got into Banco de Gaia after Marks made the project into a fully fleshed-out band, the tracks on offer here seem very simple in comparison - which, truthfully, they are. For the most part, you can hear Marks still playing by dance music’s rules, and it would be another couple years before his song-writing would find the confidence to do things his own way.

Despite this shortcoming, there is gold to be found underneath the rough edges. Some of the melodies on offer are wonderful to behold, and Marks had nailed the ambient dub template almost from the get-go. Maya may not be the most enduring Banco de Gaia album but fans of the project will still find little things about it that will keep them coming back to listen to again and again.


ACE TRACKS:
Lai Lah (v1.∞)
Qurna (Mister Christian On The Decks)
Gamelah (Dub 3)

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2006. © All rights reserved.


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