Friday, March 15, 2013

Banco de Gaia - Farewell Ferengistan (Original TC Review)

Six Degrees Records: 2006

(2013 Update:
I think this was among the last of my track-by-track reviews, and it's too damn long as a result. Did
Ynys Elen really need that much detailing? Of course not! Yeesh. One could probably chalk the length to inexperience in handling over-enthusiastic fandom while writing, as Banco de Gaia remains one of my all-time favorite acts. It'll be interesting to see how I'm forced to curtail it since his upcoming album, Apollo, definitely falls within one of my alphabetical stipulations.)


IN BRIEF: Banco’s back on form

To say the last Banco de Gaia album (You Are Here) was met with lukewarm responses may be generous. While not a bad album, it seemed to lack a coherent theme and purpose, resulting in a listen that was disjointed and confusing. Many followers of Toby Marks’ music wondered if he was feeling a musical burnout, or if You Are Here was merely an experiment that didn’t quite hit the mark. Judging from the material on his new album, Farewell Ferengistan, it seems the latter may have been the case.

Yes, my friends, Marks indeed found his groove once more. While the production definitely comes off more focused this time out, the major improvement is the lack of preach that hampered the last album. Marks often injected political thoughts and ideas in his works, but rarely at the expense of the music on hand. I suppose with the volatile political climate in the years You Are Here was made, Marks’ sloganeering got the better of him, hoping to spur on some extra activism. Unfortunately, it came off redundant, as most of the Banco audience is already boned up on such ideas. Farewell Ferengistan does away with that, letting the music speak for itself again as Marks provides little blurbs in the inlay (including an amusing disclaimer reading, “All facts and claims stated herein are liable to be untrue, partially true, or totally true depending on your viewpoint”; we should have a disclaimer like that too!). The thoughts he details can give some insight into the ideas he approached some of the songs with, but, for the most part, they aren’t crucial in enjoying the music on its own merits.

Also, Farewell Ferengistan creates captivating settings, a long-time Banco trademark, and something that was sorely lacking on the last album. Whether conjuring up dusty Arab caravans, ancient mountain villages, lonely starship freighters, primal tribal gatherings, or drunken monasteries, Marks’ ability to let your imagination take over with his music guiding is remarkable.

The first half of Farewell Ferengistan is quite good at this, drawing upon many influences that harken back to an era when traveling by horse was common, and the dominant empire was that of the Mongols (probably the largest in recorded history). Even the name Ferengistan comes from the name far-flung settlements in Central Asia dubbed Europe at the time (Ferengi became a derogatory term for Western traders, due to their greedy, materialistic tendencies of the time, and used by most Arabs and East Asians... and that’s your fun-fact for the day). As always, Marks’ production is sample-heavy, but unassuming in its presentation. I’ve always marveled at how he can take a well-worn, rinsed-out, over-abused sample, and make it sound fresh again, and this time is no different. Ethnic chants, wood winds, drum loops, spoken dialogue; it’s all here, although some may be a bit more difficult to I.D. this time if you’re a sample trainspotter. As has been the growing trend in Banco de Gaia, electronic elements play a much reduced roll, complementing the organic nature of the songs rather than leading them.

The somber, downbeat title track opens things up, setting up a nice atmosphere but doesn’t really hook you in from the get-go. Rather, the simple melody in Ynys Elen will do the trick, mainly because it’s essentially a 32-bar refrain, repeating throughout the whole track. What keeps you hooked though (besides its catchiness, of course), is the fact Marks is constantly adding something new with each go-around: a new set of drums, a different synth, an added pad, and much more. By always keeping things evolving, Ynys Elen comes across as more of a jam than an actual song, each successive loop bringing a new contribution to the fray.

The pace picks up with Chingiz, a fairly standard dance track with a fairly non-standard vocal lead (Mongolian chants, in case the title didn’t give it away). Not to be outdone, follow-up Kara Kum takes the rhythmic vibes a step further with building layers of forlorn guitar strums, lonely woodwinds, and tribal drums. At one point, the song breaks down to start over, relying on only the drums and an 808 beat to build tension. And build tension it does, as the track’s intensity never gives the listener a chance to catch their breath, relentless in its primal assault. Once the melodic elements return, Kara Kum is in high-gear for a rousing climax. Shame about that abrupt ending though.

The Harmonious G8 is best described as a conceptual interlude. The idea is to fuse together the individual performances of a singer form each of the G8 nations, which was carried out at one of the recent summits. Of course, it isn’t a flowing sound when it comes together, but certainly more coherent than you’d expect.

Moving into the second half of the album, Marks leaves the past and heads into the future with a pair of sci-fi influenced tracks. Saturn Return is a spacey ambient piece, and is quite effective in placing you amongst the stars before grounding you back on Earth with some casual rhythms and a female chant to take you out. Journalists will probably end up adding Terry Riley to the every-growing list of musicians they often strain comparing Banco de Gaia to.

And perhaps even Wendy Carlos as well. Sure, the opening of Flow My Dreams, The Android Wept sounds like a typical Banco tune, with pleasant electronics, groovy rhythms, rich ambience, and a rousing male vocal. However, the song soon moves into a synthy rendition of Flow My Tears. Composed by the British lute player John Dowland in the 16th Century, it has the odd contrast of being both mournful and uplifting at the same time. A simple enough idea, but Marks turns this song into a tribute of sorts to Philip K. Dick, whom penned many sci-fi novels, including the one that went on to be turned into Bladerunner. What kind of tribute (beyond Dick’s enjoyment of the original piece, of course)? By having the lyrics to Flow My Tears sung in a robotic voice, rendering them almost unintelligible! Actually, Flow My Dreams, The Android Wept comes off remarkably well. Even if the lyrics are hard to understand, they still add to the song’s atmosphere, and work as an additional element complementing the main melody. Hey, if it worked for Vector Lovers, why not here as well? It’s a sonic experiment never tried under the Banco banner, and succeeds.

White Man’s Burden changes the album’s setting again with its lengthy, ambient opening. Layers of lush, natural soundscapes keep building, hinting at an emotional peak. Instead, once the rhythms take over, the tone of the track goes one-eighty, turning into something more ominous to lead out. If you’re familiar with the origins of the song’s title, the context of this musical change won’t be lost on you.

Farewell Ferengistan ends on a charming note with We All Know The Truth. The title reads like something you might find on an Enigma album, but the track itself rather sounds like one of William Orbit’s poppier moments, including lyrics sung by Maya Preece of Dragonflys. As a song to cap off the album, I suppose it works. Despite being overly chipper at times, We All Know... feels like a reassuring lullaby, reminding us there’s still warmth in a world that can feel cold at times. How the song fits in the Banco discography, one phrase uttered by Roger Meyers, Jr. sums up my own thoughts: “It’s different, I’ll give it that.”

But different is good when done with finesse. While Farewell Ferengistan does see a return of the of Banco style we’ve been familiar with over the years, there’s enough fresh ideas executed to surprise long term fans as well. For the most part though, this is a contemplative album. Marks seems aware we’re at a turning point of sorts in human history, and while it helps to look to the past for guidance, we should still keep our eyes forward. The future isn’t as scary a place we sometimes think it is so long as we approach it with the right intentions.


ACE TRACKS:
Kara Kum
Saturn Return
Flow My Dreams, The Android Wept

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


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