For the past 29 years Topanga, California has been the home base for Djam Karet, one of America's premiere instrumental progressive rock groups. And in that nearly three decade span the band has churned out an impressive discography of 16 albums, as well as several side and solo projects (two of which I reviewed here at Prognaut in December of 2011: Henderson/Oken - “Dream Theory In The IE” and The Hillmen - “The Whiskey Mountain Sessions”).
With the 2013 release “The Trip”, this may well be their finest ambient electronic soundscape.
Over the years Djam Karet have displayed something of a dual personality, initiated by the release of two extremely diverse albums in 1991 - “Burning The Hard City” and “Suspension & Displacement”.
The two releases were so completely different that it's easy to assume the albums might well have been recorded by two separate bands.
“Burning The Hard City” was an all out sonic assault, with the guitar crunching power and fury of “Larks Tongue In Aspic” era King Crimson. While “Suspension & Displacement” was a darkly ominous electronic soundscape more in keeping with the spacey electronics of German synthesizer bands like Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Temple.
This split personality has been something of a trademark for the band as they alternate between a raucous guitar-driven wall of sound and sedate cinematic soundscapes.
“The Trip” is a n extended 47 minute single track, mixing acoustic instruments such as flute, guitar, and bouzouki with the interstellar otherworldly textures of Moog and Mellotron, creating a sonic dreamscape reminiscent of the experimental electronic music of Klaus Schulze, Meddle era Pink Floyd, Tim Blake, Steve Roach, Harvey Baindridge, Cluster, Louis and Bebe Barron - creators of the ‘Electronic Tonalities’ employed in the 1956 electronic score “Forbidden Planet”, Amin Bhatia (composer of “The Interstellar Suite), Frippertronics, an on occasion Ozric Tentacles.
In their press release the band likens “The Trip” to a 70s' head-phone stoner album.
And in order to capture a more dynamic analog sound, the band employed no digital compression or limiting during the production of the album.
So naturally I donned a pair of head-phones, turned out the lights, and proceeded to give it a listen. And what I discovered was a true retro recording that harkens back to an era when a pair of microphones were positioned in two corners of a small basement recording studio, plugged directly into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the band performed live with everything picked-up by the two microphones.
I'm speaking from experience. I can remember my earliest recording sessions in the mid-70s' when our band's practice sessions were recorded in just this way. Microphones dangled from the cross-brace of an acoustic ceiling tile grid, picking-up every extraneous sound from both upstairs and down - footsteps, my kids shouting at one another, a barking dog, the creak of a squeaky wha-wha pedal, the audible sound of my fingers plunking on the keyboards, the popping of a soda can followed afterward by a loud burp, impromptu arguments, and occasionally poorly recorded music from a group of mediocre musicians.
But unlike our crude muddy recording sessions the faux retro recording techniques on Djam Karet's “The Trip” emulates the simple two mic recordings I'm reminded of when listening to the mix, yet in this case the music is crisp and clear with plenty of separation. A perfect headphone experience.
But just as with our primitive recording techniques, the drum kit on “The Trip” is pushed into the background, with the bulk of the drumming captured by the nearest microphone. There is no distinct stereophonic separation of the kit as in most modern recordings.
While this might sound like a complaint (and normally it would be) in this case it's actually a compliment as the band manages to recreate the very essence of those early stoner albums by capturing the raw unvarnished sound of the era. Psychedelic Head Music in it's purest form.
And it should be noted that the drums are sparingly used throughout the recording of “The Trip”. Percussionist Chuck Oken makes his first appearance at the 18:30 mark in the album providing little more than a slow beat, which goes on for another ten minutes before falling silent again. He then returns with a flourish at 38:08 mark as the band transitions from the sedate ambient soundscapes that dominate the album to hard driving rock and roll. It's here where the split personality of Djam Karet takes hold, transforming the group from the sedate Dr. Jekyll of “Suspension & Displacement” to the raucous alter ego Mr. Hyde responsible for the smoking albums “The Devouring”, “Burning The Hard City”, and “Reflections From The Firepool”.
I'm not sure if this was recorded in one continuous take as a free-form jam session, with overdubs added later, but it sure flows with the spontaneity of a marathon jam session. And it's not till that 18:30 minute mark when the band comes together to rock out, that there appears to be some semblance of a pre-determined composition coming into play.
On my first listen I was immediately reminded of the Alisa Coral's space rock album “Neutron Star”. Like Djam Karet's “The Trip”, her use of analog and digital synthesizers on “Neutron Star” provide a similar texture of ominous drones, sequenced blips and beeps, eerie modulating echoes, washes of ambient orchestral soundscapes, and sweeping Mellotron choirs, giving a trance like heartbeat and Cosmic Voice to the expanding galaxy.
Imagine dangling a pair of microphones from the Voyager space probe as it hurtles through the vastness of space, recording this Voice of the Cosmos.
“The Trip” is that recording - an aural voyage beyond the looking glass piloted by the five talented musicians who make up Djam Karet: Gayle Ellett (analog & digital synths, organ, Mellotron, Greek bouzouki, flute, field recordings and effects), Mike Henderson (electric guitars, ebow and effects), Aaron Kenyon (electric 5-string bass and effects), Mike Murray (electric guitars, acoustic guitars, ebow and effects), and Chuck Oken Jr. (drums & percussion, analog & digital synths, live samples and processing).
Not only do I highly recommend the album to fans of adventurous experimental music … but I also suggest you get yourself a good set of head-phones to experience the full effect.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on June 24th, 2013