Anyone already familiar with Californian instrumentalists Djam Karet (pronounced Jam Care-Ray), will know what to expect from this, their latest release. There is a welcome familiarity about the way they go about creating music. It will be fundamentally guitar-based, with three guitarists in Mike Henderson, Mike Murray and main-man Gayle Ellett, a dexterous rhythm section comprising Chuck Oken Jr on percussion and bassist Henry Osborne, but embellished with unusual instruments from around the world, various keyboards, and interspersed with field recordings, the whole being stitched together into a rich sonic tapestry.
Well yes, the usual elements are all in place, but on this occasion, the overall feel and timbre of the music is a bit more relaxed and atmospheric, with more emphasis on acoustic instrumentation. There is also a feeling of a more concise approach. No track outstays its welcome, in fact, many leave you wishing they continued a bit longer, but that’s no bad thing in the world of Prog excess. There’s no flab on display here buddy, this band has been working out, and we are left with just enough music to keep us fully alert and entertained across three-quarters of an hour.
Djam Karet started life in the eighties as a jam band, playing improvised live sets. Gradually, they began to write music, and soon introduced more of the progressive elements that they trade with today. You can certainly still hear the urge to improvise here and there, but it is now very much within the context of written melodies and themes, and on this album, they get to the point quickly and move on before anyone can possibly get bored. Frank Zappa used to bemoan bands which ‘noodled’, as he described it, probably referring to groups like the Grateful Dead! Well, there’s no noodling here!
So what’s it like? Opener Beyond The Frontier is a great example of what this band are about. It begins gently before settling into an easy guitar-led motif, the band sounding live, and getting into a groove, but as soon as they find it, we are onto something else. Synths interrupt and completely change the mood, and field recordings provide a human element, then back into the guitar motif. There’s so much crammed into less than six minutes, and yet it all ebbs and flows naturally, nothing jarring despite the sudden mood changes.
The one long piece, title track A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof, reminds me a little of Crimson’s The Sheltering Sky. It conjures a similar feeling of a vast sky, and similarly is propelled by an unchanging rhythm over which various instruments weave a wonderful evocative soundscape. There’s even some Fripp-esque sustain guitar which is beautiful. It may be eleven minutes long, but it seems to be over way before that.
Some pieces are built around sequenced synth lines, courtesy of drummer Chuck Oken Jr, which can’t help but remind me of eighties Tangerine Dream, but they are quickly overlaid with multiple guitars or strange stringed instruments and exotic ethnic percussion. Overall, this album has a feel of celebrating the diversity of the natural world, or so it seems to me. The soundscapes conjure images of a journey through wide open landscapes, subtly changing details coming into view only to disappear shortly after. That’s one of the great things about an instrumental album, the message is down to your own imagination.
Special mention must be made of band leader Gayle Ellett, who plays a bewildering array of instruments, many of which I admit I have never heard of before. Ok, I’m familiar with the various guitars, and I know what a harmonium is, and a tambourine, and even a bicycle bell! But what the heck is a surmandal? Anyone? A gopichand? Krakebs? It’s this kind of grand scope which helps bring such a vast richness to the music. And after more than 35 years making music as Djam Karet, each musician has grown to become completely comfortable with their craft, and each others’ musical company. They just naturally play together so well.
The last two songs, Specter of Twilight and Night Falls, are aptly named, bringing the album to a fitting conclusion, gradually dialling down the mood until at the end of Night Falls it sounds as though the last vestiges of the day’s sunlight are being gently sucked down a sonic plughole! This album is so atmospheric it makes perfect late evening listening. And as promised, before you begin to tire, the ride is over, the day done, the album finished. A sure sign of a great album is the desire in the listener to play it again once it finishes. Doesn’t happen that often, but that’s how I feel about this release. It may not be life-changing, but it is life-affirming. Now, all we need to do is somehow persuade the band that it would be a grand idea to get over to the UK and play live! Now that would be something a bit special.
01. Beyond the Frontier (5:49)
02. Long Ride to Eden (5:58)
03. West Coast (5:57)
04. A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof (11:05)
05. Dust in the Sun (3:00)
06. On the Third Day Arrived the Crow (4:03)
07. Specter of Twilight (3:27)
08. Night Falls (4:58)
Total Time – 44:17
Gayle Ellett – Harmonium, Dilruba, Acoustic & Electric guitars, 8 & 4-string Tenor Ukulele, Vibraphone, Viola, Greek Bouzouki, eBow, Upright Bass, Analogue Synth, Hammond Organ, Mellotron Choir, Gopichand, Tar, Mbira, Wooden Flutes, Surmandal, Tanpura, Cumbus, Congas, Udu, Krakebs, Tambourine, Bicycle Bell, Field Recordings
Mike Henderson – Electric Guitar, 12-string Acoustic Guitar, Slide Guitar, Synthesisers
Chuck Oken Jr – Analogue & Digital Keyboard Sequencing & Soundscapes, Drums
Henry Osborne – Bass
Mike Murray – Acoustic Guitar (track 3), Electric Mandocello (tracks 1 & 3)
Todd Montgomery – Sitar (tracks 1,2 & 6), Irish Bouzouki (track 6)
Micah Nelson – Charango (tracks 3 & 5)
Mark Cook – Electric Guitar, Fretless Guitar, Bass (track 7)
Shannon Michael Terry – Array Mbira (track 5)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 15th April 2019