As globalization continues to find its way into art, many new colours, sounds and textures are being created. In the case of Matthew Welch’s Blarvuster, Celtic rhythms and styles become the backdrop for Indonesian melodies and “texts.” (Welch’s vowel-rich vocalizations are at one with his equally nasal bagpipe lines and reedy soprano saxophone offerings.)
The first six tracks are almost a person by person introduction to the sextet of musicians. “High Street” starts off the proceedings with an imaginative, fresh hue that bubbles along with great enthusiasm if somewhat loose ensemble: the predominating repeated “cells” of the accompaniments—often with two or more players covering the same territory—lack razor-sharp tightness that would more galvanize the ear than merely intrigue it. The first bits of bagpipe improv have much promise; perhaps less repetition of the musical snippets would better balance the ritornello of the accompaniments. Curious here (and nowhere else, it seems) are the few “manmade” dynamic changes (notably, crescendo) just when some sonic variety would add to the overall enjoyment.
“Bottoms Up,” with virtually the same tempo and feel of its predecessor (and much more settled), showcases Welch’s voice to great effect—his tone is the perfect foil to the electronic and acoustical sounds that surround it.
“Song 2” and “Song 1” have ballad-like qualities and more harmonic interest than their quicker cousins. The soprano sax of the former is another breath of fresh air. After the latter’s “House of the Rising Sun” opening, there’s a marvellous duet between flute (Leah Paul) and glockenspiel (Ches Smith), a stellar viola solo (Karen Waltuch) and a glimmer of Radiohead orchestration, which only adds to the promise of further possibilities when Welch is able to more fully employ and exploit the considerable talents of his colleagues.
A somewhat scrambling flute gives “Gorgamor the Giant Gecko” more drama than intended before the viola once again intervenes effectively, setting up a rare lift, silence and finish.
Energetic, nearly sizzling could best describe “Pak Gusti Aji” where a cantus firmus-like line (viola) leads everyone into the extended, cymbal-infused coda. It’s a fine closer to the first set.
The remainder of the disc is comprised of Canntaireachd (notation of pipe music using combinations of syllables) coupled with Masolah (a Balinese performing ritual). The four sections have a certain logical sense, yet the preponderance of vertical realization prevents the art from flowing forward with consistency. The first three movements feature rolling openings (Welch’s voice is at its best here) and a sudden shift (rather like a “reel” Trio to the more stately “Minuet”) that—the first couple of times—is as welcome as needed rain. Especially pleasing are the moments when the vocal tessitura soars high to the obvious delight of the perfectly dry snare drum (Smith). Ian Riggs’ literal Alberti bass helps keep the accompaniment together (in the earlier tracks, especially “Song 1” both the bass—at times, Tim Dahl—and the bass drum overshadowed their collaborators, literally and in the mixdown).
Suceeding movements tend to pick up where the previous ones left off: the “Finale” begins like bow music for its predecessor only to streak into a faster pace then—after a brief oasis of relative quietude—zips along convincingly to the double bar.
As fascinating as many of the sounds are (certainly worth a listen to further expand anyone’s understanding of the possibilities for this “West Meets East” approach), let’s hope for a further volume soon; one that finds its way past the overabundance of unison and delves far deeper and more frequently into the “funky counterpoint” that could be the musical icing on this multilayered cake. JWR