OK, we're going to start today's review off with a riddle. Here goes:
What do you get when you mix blues guitar, Indian percussion, and new age violin?
A. A tasteful and delicate mesh of disparate world styles. B. A brain-splitting headache. C. Acoustic Tales' airey release The Archaic Revival D. McDonald's new "McScrapple" breakfast sandwich.
What's the answer? Well, that depends. "C" is definitely the right answer no matter who you are. However, if your musical tastes lean towards more soothing and relaxing fare, than "A" may be correct. However, if you're like me (except for the six toes on each foot and the copious amounts of back hair), "B" is more likely the right answer. (If you chose "D", please get your head checked). I make no bones about the fact that "new age" isn't exactly my cup of tea, but as long as my Editor keeps sending me this stuff I've gotta review it. And so, with open ears and open mind I began on my journey into Acoustic Tales' not-so-subtle mixture of widely-varying styles. I traveled up and down its rivers of violin. I dug down into the earthy tones of the blues-inspired guitars. I floated ethereally along with the Indian-inspired percussion. I tinkered tinkerfully with the pianific soundages of the Steinway (OK, so that was weak...).
And do you know what? I still don't like it.
Acoustic Tales is primarily made up of multi-instrumentalist Bill Curtis and violinist Anna Hubbell - both very talented musicians. They are supported on this journey by a few side musicians including percussionist Victor Williams who, according to a sticker located on the back of the CD case which obscured the track information causing me to have to pop out the little plastic thingy in order to read the $*^%( track names almost resulting in a lost finger, is a fellow who once traveled in the same musical circles as John McLaughlin. The original guitar and violin tracks were recorded live at a Borders' bookstore in Gaithersburg, MD - an establishment that yours truly has shopped at on many occasions. So I do at least have to give "props" to my hometown "peeps" before I start complaining about their album. Gaithersburg, Maryland - TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN! Yo Yo Yo!!!
Anyway, regarding the music on Archaic Revivial (Ed: I was wondering when you were getting to that...), my problem is not with execution but rather with planning. There is nothing at all wrong with Curtis and Hubbell's musical abilities - they are both very good "players". However, their compositions - for the most part - didn't really hold my interest for very long. Quite frankly, blues guitar doesn't really mix well with new age violin and Indian percussion. There were times when Curtis would rip into a blues-y acoustic riff right on top of some spacey new age violin-ing (???) by Hubbell, resulting in a cacophonic mish-mash of textures that go about as well together as peanut butter and bananas (no offense to Elvis). I swear I heard Howlin' Wolf rise from his Mississippi grave and begin a long undead jaunt to Gaithersburg to put an end to this misuse of the blues.
That is not to say that the entire CD is bad - there are actually a few moments towards the middle of the album where the musicians show they are quite capable of composing some nice music. On the sub 2-minute "Melting Pot", the guitar and violin engage in a bit of "math music" similar to the interlocking guitars of 1980's King Crimson that was very effective and interesting. "'Sae'" is a delicate and beautiful piece that manages to stay simple enough to be engaging. And the track "The Raven" actually throws Latin-inspired rhythms into the mix to create a surprisingly engaging and very emotionally played piece. There is also a bit in the middle of the otherwise uninspiring piece "Zero Point" where the intensity of the playing picked up tremendously causing me to awaken out of my violin-induced daze and take notice. Even though I didn't enjoy most of the CD, these few tracks were very good indeed and made it clear that the musicians were clearly playing with passion and emotion. That definitely gets points in my book.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album has a certain "sameness" that makes it difficult to listen to the whole way through. The first track "Nun Ziata" is a gear-shifting piece that has some unintentionally-comical sounding "blues violin" that is terribly out of place. On "Kani" you have your stock new age waterfall sounds accompanied by a very multicultural Ocarina (or something that sounds like what my wife told me ocarinas sound like) that is too clichéd to be taken very seriously (despite the delicate piano work from Jeremy Cubert). Finally, the track "Rising Sun" brings some synthesized Oriental textures to the mix, a mood that is immediately destroyed by the entrance of Hubbell's overbearing violin. Too many moments like these ruin any chance of the album hitting full stride.
There are some instrumental moments that stand out and deserve mention. On several of the tracks, Jeremy Cubert's grand piano really shines and is played with just the right amount of grace and subtlety. His playing is excellent throughout. Also, when not stuck in "blues mode" Bill Curtis' guitar work is quite nice. Unfortunately, most of his best work is buried beneath Hubbell's violin, so you really have to listen hard to notice his talent.
I must also mention that the CD I was sent was unable to play the track "Nagual", so for all I know it could rival Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" or Three Dog Night's "Momma Told Me Not To Come" in its majesty. Sadly, I will never know.
So in short, I didn't like The Archaic Revival very much, but I definitely have respect for the musicians abilities and the passion with which they play their music. The band does show some very good compositional skills at certain points of the album, but unfortunately fall into "new age cliché" territory too often (a fate that most similar bands I've heard succumb to as well). So unless you've really in the mood for some easy listening ear candy, I'd pass on this one.
Track Listing: 1. Nun Ziata (3:42) 2. Kani (5:41) 3. Zero Point (7:30) 4. Nagual (3:45) 5. Little Kilie (5:11) 6. Melting Pot (1:59) 7. Red Tide (3:50) 8. "Sae" (3:22) 9. The Raven (7:46) 10. Rising Sun (5:48) 11. Blues O.D.C. (3:40) 12. Sunny Afternoon (1:31) 13. Zombie (3:44) 14. The Inquisition (5:22)
Personnel: Bill Curtis - Guitars, Guitar Synthesizer, Flute, Percussion Anna Hubbell - Electric Violin John Nazdin - Upright Electric Bass Jeremy Cubert - Steinway grand piano Victor Williams: Percussion