Noirabesque by The Thing With Five Eyes

Release date: January 15, 2018
Label: Svart Lava

The Thing With Five Eyes is the baby and new creative project of Jason Köhnen, following the demise of his previous outfits The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Whereas those bands mixed jazz with drone and doom elements to create ‘darkjazz’, The Thing With Five Eyes has a fresher feel, taking electronica and jazz and throwing in a palette of Middle Eastern sounds and atmospheres to create Noirabesque, an album that feels genre-spanning, worldly and very exciting (and with fewer mountains).

Vocals are added at times by Algerian/French singer Leila Bounous, who sounds a lot like Natasha Atlas in tone. Indeed, a major frame of reference when listening to the first part of this album was Natasha and her work with Transglobal Underground. Parts of Noirabesque could be taken as Transglobal-‘light’, but peel back the layers and there’s a lot more to it.  The album title is a play on Arabesque, one example of which was a superb 1999 compilation album of the same name on Gut Records, and mixed by Steve Hillage, that used traditional songs from the Arab World and added Western vocal and dance beats. Noirabesque comes from a different angle, creating new music that fuses such elements as Leila’s Arabic vocals, and sounds and instrumentation that strongly bring to mind traditional Middle Eastern music, but with a twist.

‘Salem’ starts the album off with drifting ambience and dreamy synth sounds that segue into Leila’s hypnotic voice as it takes us through to the end of this promising intro. It’s a gentle start that paves the way to comes. Leila is given centre stage on second track ‘Alma’. Her vocal (which I assume is in Arabic) soars above the track, which becomes increasingly Eastern in its sound. The laconic electronica builds an exotic feel that does strongly bring to mind the mellower moments of Transglobal’s ‘90s output. In a good way. ‘Hedra’ continues in a similar theme but intensifies the atmosphere. At this stage of the album the ‘jazz’ part of Jason’s previous bands is not evident. Leila sings plaintively over a strong beat that develops into an uplifting song that is the standout one of the album for me.

‘Zigurhat’ marks a change in feel, combining the worldly instrumentation with a lone bassoon (or maybe sax – don’t quote me on what instruments they’re using) that brings in wistful jazz elements. ‘Nakba’ builds on this, bringing in more trumpets and horns, then even more of the orchestra. There’s a far-off feel to the music, which is very slow in tempo. The change in vibe is cemented with ‘Taurus’ and the jazz sounds come to the fore. Far-off trumpet, slow snare and cymbal beats, and much less of Leila’s vocals. The darker feel of this track harks back to the darkjazz of Köhnen’s past work. This has a very late-night feel to it (how I always imagine jazz should be experienced).

‘Nehex’, ‘Qun’ and closer ‘Selenga’ mix similar, darker, jazz elements and move further away from the worldly electronica of the first few songs. The signature Middle Eastern vibe remains strong throughout, however; it’s just expressed in a different way.

My overriding impression from Noirabesque is that the full potential of The Thing With Five Eyes is yet to be realised. The sounds and vibes coming through were to me a little disparate. The album changes focus quite significantly after the first few tracks and although it’s all good, I preferred the earlier parts more. The jazz-inflected tones of the later tracks did merge a little for me, making songs harder to differentiate. If the magnificent, uplifting and open-minded electronica and beautiful vocals of Leila Bounous could be merged more successfully with the darker and mystical jazz tones of the later tracks, I for one would be thrilled to hear the result.

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