Mandala is a Sanskrit word describing a spiritual and ritual symbol used in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe.
They place themselves in the genre of Folk-noir / Eastern-influenced progressive rock. But then, who doesn’t these days!
Mandala initially seemed, to me, to fit the description “Power Trio”, their website stating that the band formed in London in 1997. Not surprisingly for a band that has been around for a while, they’ve been through a few line-ups, ranging in size from three to one to six members… and now they are back to the original three-piece line-up of Rhys Marsh, Francis Booth and Will Spurling.
This debut album has been a long time coming. It was started in 2004 but by 2006 it had not materialised and the band had split up. They got together again in 2014. Rhys says the album was recorded live with a few overdubs and it certainly does have the feel of a band playing together.
I try and avoid doing a track by track analysis when I review an album but if you listen to this one you’ll know why that was hard to do. When I started listening to the first track I knew I was in for a tricky one.
I’m not sure that Folk-noir helps me pigeon-hole Mandala and I’m not great at identifying musical genres so far I’ve successfully managed to avoid doing this. Yet early on I found myself involuntarily thinking of early heavy rock riff-smiths like Black Sabbath. I soon ditched that, thinking “Deep Purple” … I like both bands but I’m not exactly fanatical about about either of them.
So I sat back and listened and wondered whether the sound that the band represents itself with can carry all ten tracks.
Two things soon became apparent. Firstly, my initial assumptions were wrong. Secondly, this band have spent plenty of time working on their songs. Thirdly, that ‘assume’ makes an ass of u and me and lastly, I cannot count. I started to hear a variety of styles, all held together by Rhys Marsh’s voice. Rather than finding a killer riff then falling back on it with self-satisfied smugness they have weaved their killer riffs into a song that has structure and variety. Some of the chord changes are unexpected. I like that a lot.
I’m writing this, as I always try to, as I listen. I found myself, like one does when listening to riffy stuff, doing The Head-Bob and answering that un-asked question monosyllabically and affirmatively.
I think I have just sussed out the difference between Rock and Progressive Rock. If you’re a Rock band and you want to throw in something different then you take one off. If you’re “Prog” you’ll tend to add one…. at least one… on. I’m talking about time signatures. I have a leaflet. Email me.
Anyway, Mandala opt for the former choice with a waltz and reveal some depth to their song writing with some hugely complimentary strings on the second track. Any worries about the band lacking a variety of texture quickly melted away and were totally gone with the opening phrases of track three.
By the time Sun goes down and I Have Fallen, er, rises, I’ve almost forgotten the heavy rock labels I was trying to tie to the songs and I’m thinking about busking on the West Coast of California or approaching Dallas on the Interstate with the top down. 12-Strings and slide guitar isn’t all that “power trio” is it? In fact, as the song rolled on I was thinking this might fit nicely on a non-existent album by Yes that could have fitted in after Time and a Word and before The Yes Album. I bet the band never expected that kind of comparison.
Other tracks mix up the power trio vibe with sitar, and there’s also the dreamy Dreaming. This is my favourite track, with restrained drumming, lush orchestration, beautifully captured arpeggio acoustic guitar and subtle bass further diversifying their sound. With this one they’ve stepped away from the power trio rock band altogether. And if you insist on wanting a dose of Prog then you’ll be pleased with the 7/8 of Ghizou, with its bass hook, banshee guitar, rousing chorus and climactic resolve.
In fact, by the time the opening sitar and catchy bass riff of Within is playing I realise that I’ve been on a little journey with Mandala. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had, in fact, chosen these tracks from their stock of forty and put them on the album in chronological order, representing the development of their song writing methodology over time. Elements of all the points I have highlighted, and more, seem to be present in the last track which is quite majestic.
Fire Is Mine develops into a song with a real John Barry quality and, I suspect, in a live setting with the strings it would be quite something to behold. Maybe that is my favourite track.
I was surprised by this album and it was well worth the journey. When the sounds faded to nothing I sat in silence for a while realising that I was disappointed that it had finished…until I realised I could listen to it again!
So I did.
01. There’s A Wind That Blows (6:44)
02. The Dark Waltz (5:00)
03. Into The NIght (3:01)
04. Midnight Twilight (2:26)
05. Sun (4:43)
06. I Have Fallen (4:08)
07. Dreaming (6:55)
08. Ghizou (6:59)
09. Within (4:40)
10. Fire Is Mine (5:52)
Rhys Marsh – Guitar, Voices
Francis Booth – Bass
Will Spurling – Drums
Anna Giddey – Violin
Natalie Rozario – Cello