Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh
Ghost’s Masaki Batoh and The Espers’ Helena Espvall have been cultivating a productive relationship these past two years. They released a self-titled album in 2008 and toured the US in support of it. In 2009, Espvall was welcomed into Batoh’s Ghost collective for their most recent US tour. Just a few months after that wrapped up, the duo released their second collection of songs, Overloaded Ark.
As with their first collaboration, Espvall and Batoh’s work is equally about putting new interpretations on existing work as it is about composing their own. Of the nine tracks that make up the album, five are covers of disparate national and temporal origins: there are back-to-back songs — “Sueno Con Serplentes” and “Pro Peccatis Suae Gentis/Nun Fanget An” — that were written by a Cuban singer-songwriter born in the 1940s and a Franco-Flemish classical composer from the 1500s, respectively.
The experimental filter Espvall and Batoh fashion over this project is something of a marvel because there’s such a graceful unity to all of these tracks. They accomplish this largely by drawing from unusual regional folk instruments from all over the world and combining them in previously untested ways. The opener “Little Blue Dragon” is perhaps the best example of this, featuring warbling Eastern pipes and shambolic banjo each vying for rhythmic lead.
In keeping with Batoh’s psychedelic tendencies, there are a number of drone tracks that break the 10-minute mark. The title track is one of these beasts; it rides on a tribal drum groove that’s overlaid with phase-shifting ambient hiss, but grows more organic as acoustic guitar and strings take the spotlight in turn. There are moments of intensity and restraint and these peaks and valleys keep everything engaging.
“Until Tomorrow” and the gorgeous closer “Sham no umi” are jams more in line with Batoh’s full-time outfit, Ghost. They’re rife with a space-folk quality that feels airless and huge, like careening slowly through the upper layers of the atmosphere. These tracks along with “Sueno” highlight the pair’s exquisite vocal melodies.
Avant-folk of this style and simplicity is such a rarity these days that one hopes Espvall and Batoh can keep mining the rich fields of traditional regional music for many releases to come.
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