You don’t have to be a major rock ‘n’ roll band to follow a familiar rock ‘n’ roll career trajectory. Take Savath & Savalas, the ethereal Catalan folk project of Prefuse 73’s Guillermo Scott Herren. Savath & Savalas’ first album, 2004’s Apropa’t, was released on the Warp label and received lots of critical accolades for its enchanting Spanish and Latin folk combinations and singer Eva Puyuelo Muns’ breathy harmonies. Some of this attention was doubtless due to the stark contrast between Savath & Savalas’s psych-folk and Prefuse 73’s glitch post-hip-hop.
Savath & Savalas’s follow-up, 2007’s Golden Pollen, released on Anti-, did not have the benefit of surprise. The sound was akin to Apropa’t‘s, but this time Herren himself supplied the vocals. The album was excellent, a more substantial, refined version of its predecessor, yet, as the band’s own press materials concede, it “fell on deaf ears”. It’s not surprising, then, to see Muns re-enter the picture for La Llama, or to see the album released on yet another label, this time indie hip-hop mainstay Stones Throw. Not even experimental, underground producers are above returning to the tried-and-true. Yet to call La Llama a rehash would be a bit unfair. There are some new wrinkles in both personnel and sound. Usual co-producer and collaborator John McEntire is absent. Multi-instrumentalist Roberto Carlos Lange has been added to the band, and he and Herren handle production. While it’s hardly a departure, La Llama is more varied, more willful, more overtly psychedelic than its predecessors.
The opening sound collage features panned television tuning, sound effects, and a harrowed woman crying, “I tried, I really did. But you know all I’ve gone through. It’s too much for anybody!” It’s a sure sign that not all is going to be sun-kissed and light. In fact, the cycle of often-dissonant sound effects and shifting, shaking, droning instruments continues throughout the album, functioning as a sonic canopy from which rhythms and melodies occasionally swell and break out. The title track is a perfect example. It begins as a foreboding mood piece, Muns’s and Herren’s mantra-like vocals casting a dark spell, before giving way to a lumbering rhythm, ghostlike chanting, and mournful strings. Overall, the rising-and-falling arrangements work, though several tracks struggle for much momentum at all.
In case you get the wrong idea, La Llama is far from being one big, long drone. Occasionally the music becomes improvisational, touching on the free-jazz-inspired sound of late period Talk Talk. Electronic touches are evident as well, in the form of subtle textures, loops, and oscillations. “Untitled” even comes ever-so-close to a danceable beat. As ever, though, Savath & Savalas are about creating and sustaining an atmosphere, lulling you in the best possible sense. And a darker atmosphere doesn’t preclude beauty. The near-acapella “La Loba” highlights Muns’s pillow-soft voice, the reverb effect and ambient noise giving the impression she’s singing, siren-like, from an underwater cave. “Me Voy” features some of the most lush, soaring harmonies Savath & Savalas have produced to date. “Pavo Real” is almost a pop song, or at least a folk song, coming closest to the brighter textures and melodies of Golden Pollen.
So, then, La Llama is a success. If you’ve enjoyed Savath & Savalas’ previous albums, you’ll find plenty here that’s familiar. Herren and his mates have pulled off the difficult task of building on a singular sound without sacrificing what made it special in the first place. La Llama should perk up plenty of ears.