Djam Karet – The Heavy Soul Sessions

Despite their decades-long career as one of the foremost US progressive rock bands, I have to admit that this album was my very first approach to Djam Karet’s music. Although I was obviously familiar with the name – Edward Macan devoted a section of his seminal book Rocking the Classics to them as examples of ‘post-progressive’ rock – but, for some reason or the other, I had never got around to hearing any of their material. Thankfully, the opportunity came some time in 2010, when I got in touch with Gayle Ellett after reviewing the second album of his side project Fernwood, and he sent me a copy of The Heavy Soul Sessions. And what better introduction to a band’s music than a live album, even if recorded in the studio rather than before an audience? Indeed, The Heavy Soul Sessions was recorded immediately after the band’s performance at the French prog festival Crescendo in the summer of 2009, with a view to recreating the atmosphere of a live setting in the studio without any resource to overdubs or the like. An elusive outfit for most of their career, Djam Karet have not been very active on the live front in the past few years, and seeing them perform on a stage has become a rare treat for their loyal following.

Released five years after Djam Karet’s latest studio effort to date, Recollection Harvest, The Heavy Soul Sessions gathers five tracks from the band’s back catalogue, plus a cover of “Dedicated to KC” from Richard Pinhas’ album L’Ethique. The oldest number, “Consider Figure Three”, originally appeared on the Suspension and Displacement album, released in 1991 as a companion effort to the harder-edged Burning the Hard City. “The Packing House” and “The Gypsy and the Hegemon” are taken from Recollection Harvest, while “Hungry Ghost” and the “The Red-Threaded Sexy Beast” (which actually conflates two separate compositions, “Red Threads” and “Sexy Beast”) come from 2003’s A Night for Baku.  The album as a whole runs at a reasonable 64 minutes (with individual tracks between 8 and 12 minutes), presenting a highly satisfying picture of the band’s skills and expressive potential, accrued in the almost 30 years of their musical career. To Djam Karet newcomers like myself, the six tracks are a real boon, as they show a band that has grown and matured constantly over the years, and whose individual members’ side projects have proved to be a source of enrichment rather than a drain.

Djam Karet’s music has often been described as ‘King Crimson meets Pink Floyd’ – a definition which is only partly true. Following Macan’s advice, the band have finally managed to bridge the gap between their rock side and their inclination towards spacey, ambient textures that make good use of cutting-edge technology. Their unabashed eclecticism emerges from even a cursory listen to The Heavy Soul Sessions: the dynamic, riff-heavy opener “Hungry Ghost”; the gentle, almost pastoral moods of “The Gypsy and the Hegemon”; the trippy, Pinkfloydian passages in “The Red-Threaded Sexy Beast”; the airy, measured beauty of the piano and guitar work in “The Packing House”; the choppy, galloping pace of the organ-led “Dedicated to K.C.” On the other hand, “Consider Figure Three” showcases the ambient/electronic side of the band’s creativity (further explored in the side project Ukab Maerd, soon to be reviewed here). Mentioned in Macan’s overview, it is a haunting, brooding piece where the recorded voice of a doctor recites a dry scientific text over a background of spacey electronic effects, surging keyboard waves and Eastern-tinged chanting.

The compositions are ruled by the seamless interaction between Gayle Ellett’s keyboards and Mike Murray (the band’s newest member) and Mike Henderson’s guitars. Unlike the traditional ‘twin guitar’ format of many classic and hard rock bands, their main function is to add layers of sound and complement the keyboards, rather than act as perpetual sparring partners, or provide relentless rifferama – though riffs surface every now and then, aided and abetted by the powerful yet restrained rhythm section of Chuck Oken Jr and Aaron Kenyon. The music’s natural flow is not at odds with its complexity; even the frequent pauses and changes in time signature do not create that impression of patchiness or lack of a coherent structure that seem to be a constant in the output of ambitious yet less experienced bands. The remarkably fluid interplay between all the instruments puts to shame the displays of virtuosity for its own sake that plague many recent releases.

While the band’s hardcore fanbase will probably be disappointed by the lack of any new material after a five-year wait, The Heavy Soul Sessions provides a great opportunity for those who (like myself) want to get acquainted with Djam Karet’s output. Hopefully this excellent album will encourage more people to delve into the band’s back catalogue, available through their website. Highly recommended to lovers of instrumental prog, and an excellent introduction to the work of one of the most representative bands of the ‘second generation’ of progressive rock.

Tracklist:

1. Hungry Ghost (8:32)
2. The Red Threaded Sexy Beast (12:42)
3. Consider Figure Three (9:48)
4. The Packing House (12:56)
5. Dedicated to KC (9:48)
6. The Gypsy and the Hegemon (10:55)

Line-up:

* Gayle Ellett – organ, analog synth, mellotron, digital synths
* Mike Henderson – guitars, ebow, effects
* Aaron Kenyon – 5-string bass, effects
* Mike Murray – guitars, ebow, effects
* Chuck Oken, Jr. – drums, altered voices

Links:

Djam Karet official website

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