Psicolorama is the project of Manuel Casado, a multi-instrumentalist from Spain. He has been prolific over the years, releasing some 24 albums since 2013. Not surprisingly, the pandemic saw an uptick in the rate of output and a series of connected releases. Post-pandemic, the albums keep coming and this, as denoted by the title, is the third in the sequence of ‘Dark’ albums, with Part 4 being released just a few days later.
There is very little to read about Manuel Casado on the interweb, so I was very grateful when he made contact with me after I had made my purchases on Bandcamp, and he answered a few of my questions. He works alone, producing and recording his works and distributing on a ‘pay what you want’ basis on Bandcamp. Having heard the range of instrumentation on this album, Manuel’s man-cave over in Spain must be truly impressive.
Like all the others before it, Dark III: The Hero is an instrumental album with a mix of ambient music and some more up-tempo passages. Manuel sums up his influences with, “I love classical music, progressive music and especially jazz, which I got into very late, but with which I discovered that it was the basis of the melodies used later in progressive rock. The essence is jazz, no doubt about it.” Stylistically, this album reminds me of no-man, but there are also obvious nods to other bands, that I will cover later.
For the album itself, Manuel has provided some context: “The Dark series is a break and a new beginning with respect to my previous recordings: the fear of what the listener may perceive disappears, I break my own ties and record directly without thinking if the music is liked or not. It has been a liberation and I hope to continue in that line. Fear as a general concept is what limits us in all aspects of life. Dark tries to reflect the reasons for that fear”. Exploration is a key element of all music, and the fear of ‘liking, or not’ is apparent, whether you are a creator or a consumer. The album is not sonically ‘dark’ at all, the lightness of touch and tone that is struck throughout reflects the freedom of expression rather than the sentiments of fear. It seems to be much more about overcoming the fear than the fear itself.
It’s clear that whilst Manuel is not trying to emulate Mike Oldfield or Steven Wilson, and he is honest enough to admit his limitations as a hobbyist rather than a professional, there is much to admire about his musicianship, enterprise and ambition. The music on this album is not going to ‘blow you away’ or be played ‘on rotation’. For me, what Manuel provides is a safe space for the listener to enjoy being in the present. The soundscapes that are going on in the background are there to accompany and inspire our own thoughts. The instrumentation is multi-layered so there is always plenty going on when I want to tune in to the music, but there is also encouragement to take the opportunity to let the music wash over and to re-focus the mind.
The balance across the album is perfect for anyone who is not a disciple of ambient music. The second half contains the 24-minute long The Hero Rides West, which is an instrumental rock epic that has much broader appeal, providing a contrast to the preceding tracks, which are distinctly more mellow.
The opener, Gates, is a simple overture, a series of notes and chords on piano and synth over a synth / strings backdrop, evoking peace and calm. A few well-placed minor chords suggest an element of foreboding but in the main, this is time to begin to slow the mind down and relax.
The second track, Green, has me taking a stroll along the shoreline. Figuratively, waves are gently breaking in the background whilst the activity of birds and seasiders is reflected in synth and guitar breaks until at the halfway point the original repeating motif drops away. This could be a moment to pause, stand and admire the views over the cliffs and look out to sea. Waves on the ocean continue to ebb and flow but now it is a more distant image. Amid the quieter atmosphere, there is plenty going on under the surface and eventually my eyes are drawn far over the horizon and the track fades out. It’s an evocative and engaging piece of music.
Sierpes / Tituan is full of ethereal sounds and intermittent melodies. To me it suggests sleep and dreams, a calmness punctuated by random thoughts. Samples of the sounds of people in crowded spaces eventually suggest the early morning and waking to the sound of the outside world beginning a new day. The track then circles back to the original main melody with a cleaner, more tuneful sound. I am ready to face the day after a period of reflection and renewal, and ready for the second half.
The opening beats to The Hero Rides West are not what I was expecting. Drums, bass and electric guitar provide a statement of intent, and the contrast with what has gone before evokes a sense of anticipation about where this will lead. In fact, whereas the first half of the album has been about imagination and allowing the listener his/her own interpretation, this track does exactly what it says on the tin. Maybe this time Manuel himself is the hero, finding his own sense of freedom?
When the opening salvo fades, a melody from a strummed acoustic guitar is introduced, sounding not unlike America’s Horse With No Name. The melody pauses briefly for a sample of horse’s hooves, just in case the message isn’t clear enough, before it sets off again, overlaid with a variety of synth parts that keep the tempo going. Soon the tune breaks into a canter, a gallop even, and we have definitely moved from ambient to instrumental rock territory. Whilst the drums maintain the beat, Manuel uses the full range of his synthesiser arsenal to accentuate the imagery. The melodies that weave in and out are always fresh and engaging and the tone well-chosen. The song doesn’t drift at any point, it feels structured and pieced together to tell the story in the most engaging way.
At around halfway everything subsides and calmness descends again. This passage is reminiscent of the introduction to Sheep from Pink Floyd’s Animals, and in similar vein, the randomness of the remaining sounds are soon replaced by a driving beat and the galloping horses reappear. On the final leg of the journey the pace to the finishing line is relentless, it’s a Trans-Europe Express-type experience, but this time on horseback, having been through a desert.
The two halves of the album are contrasting but feel complementary, the tones and melodies that Manuel conjures up are stimulating and the musical direction is handled expertly. There is a consistency about it all that allows the listener to be drawn in and to be carried away without any fear of discordance or disharmony. There is no question in my mind that it deserves a wider audience.
01. Gates (3:07)
02. Green (8:05)
03. Sierpes/Tetuan (9:46)
04. The Hero Rides West (24:15)
Total Time – 45:13
Manuel Casado – All Instruments
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Spain
Date of Release: 26th December 2022