My Tricksy Spirit by My Tricksy SpiritRelease date: September 1, 2017
Label: Bad Elephant Music
With a moniker taken from a line spoken by Prospero in The Tempest (referring to the sprite Ariel), and a sound that hinges on hypnotic, dubby rhythms and melodies with an exotic twist, My Tricksy Spirit offer up a mixture of the intriguingly cerebral and the unashamedly psychedelic in this debut LP release.
Central to all of the album’s seven (long) tracks is the sound of the gender wayang, a form of gamelan music consisting (from what this reviewer understands) at its most basic an ensemble of two instruments, which are essentially metallophones and therefore played with mallets – these instruments are not pitched in the same way as standard Western ones and use different scales, and the tuning varies even within an ensemble of instruments. As a result of this, the slightly dissonant notes are an ear-catching counterpoint to the other melodic and percussive instrumentation, very often existing in their own dimension; it is almost always present during the main body of the songs, forever drawing one in. Nick Gray, the driving force behind the band, studied the instrument in Bali and lectures in South East Asian music at London’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies):; he also contributes some fantastic violin playing to this release, along with all the songwriting and lyrics.
Given that gamelan music largely achieves its mesmerising effect by the repetition of many rhythmic and polyphonic (at times almost atonal) contrapuntal musical elements, for listeners of My Tricksy Spirit the rich instrumentation overlaid onto this base will either complement or disrupt your listening experience – it has the potential to both delight and slightly disappoint. The most common reference is dub music, particularly the dub / trip hop crossover of the 90s / early 00s as pioneered by groups like The Orb, Morcheeba, Massive Attack and the innumerable bedroom DJs, producers and musical tweakers across the globe who followed them.
So, dub rhythms and back beats coupled with trip hoppy synth pads, some satisfyingly deep and squelchy synth bass to give your subwoofer a workout, and many beautifully played lead melodies on violin, guitar (and more synths) – we’re on pretty well-trodden ground here, although admittedly most of us do seek comfort in the familiar. The vocals and acoustic instruments lend a welcome human, less robotic and more vulnerable aspect to each of the songs, although the vocals may not offer quite the poetic lyricism the band references in their name. Vocalist Roxanne Aisthorpe provides the most assured and successful performance on album opener ‘Always With You’, and it’s not hard to understand why she has been promoted from a guest to a full member of the band; Kristian Marr’s vocals on the more-uptempo ‘Circle of Light’ are also very good, sounding not unlike a New Age / hippified Ian Brown at times.
Each song is bookended by extended instrumental intros and outros; lush, evolving soundscapes that recall the sparser moments of The Orb, Ozric Tentacles, System 7 and Fluke. These succeed in either building up to the main beat or segueing into the next song, and are often where the more unusual instruments (tabla, sitar etc. and of course the gender wayang) shine, interplaying with samples and synth textures. These sections also inadvertently serve as a reminder that this is a group of musicians and producers so far perhaps more at home creating engagingly hypnotic soundscapes and East-meets-West grooves than actual memorable songs across the length of an LP; certainly the strengths of this album are rather the exotic instrumentation, admirable musicianship and slick production. Apparently there are plans to take the band on the road, and on the strength of this record I would certainly recommend attending a gig – perhaps in a live show the group may shake off something of their slightly vanilla poppiness with some electrifying performances, particularly with vocalist Aisthorpe now a regular member. Gray also heads a more traditional gender wayang orchestra, Segara Madu, and members of this group are also slated to join My Tricksy Spirit onstage.
For fans of trip hop, modern electronic dub and nu-hippie psychedelia with no prior experience of gamelan music, this will no doubt be a well-received release and a superlatively easy introduction to some of the instruments of South East Asia: its trans-global fusion sound could find a worldwide audience – it will be at home on a stage or sound system in Goa, Tel Aviv, Peru or Amsterdam. However, that is perhaps its weakness too; other listeners drawn in by the unusual instruments and the artistic proficiency on offer may instead be tantalised by the compromise between musical depth and by-the-numbers pop simplicity, a deal brokered presumably on the grounds of making the music more accessible and only really successful in a few places throughout the running length of the album – one gets the feeling that the end result is actually somewhat less than the sum of its parts, and that the group is technically and musically able to rise above this: indeed, maybe future releases and live shows will strive to and succeed in doing so – with songwriting, lyrics and arrangement as consistently sublime and adventurous as the instrumental and production talent displayed on this LP – now that would be a truly transcendental listen.