Eyvind Kang inhabits other worlds so that the rest of us don’t have to.
Chances are, if you are even moderately acquainted with contemporary avant garde recordings cutting across jazz and rock genres you’ve heard him play, perhaps without realizing it. To list a handful of musicians whose company he has kept won’t do his considerable discography justice, but should suffice to demonstrate his diversity. It also confirms that the upper echelon of serious artists tend to attract and locate one another across generations. Kang has played with Bill Frisell (notably on the excellent Quartet, from 1996); he appeared on Mr. Bungle’s California and is featured prominently on mid-‘90s Bungle side project (now full time act of escalating significance) Secret Chiefs 3 (their first two albums are interesting; their next two, 2001’s Book M and 2004’s Book of Horizons, are essential). Then, of course, there are his own proper albums, the titles of which hint at their exotic, challenging, and intriguing nature: Theater of Mineral NADEs, The Story of Iceland, Live Low to the Earth, in the Iron Age, and Virginal Co Ordinates.
There are many ways to explain Eyvind Kang, but for the uninitiated, it may be helpful to describe him an artist who is inspired by and incorporates other times and far-off places, always interpreting history and humanity with the curiosity of an explorer and the delight of a devoted scholar. He manages to make strange and exquisite music, at once embracing improvisation yet always guided by central themes and feelings. You can, in short, most assuredly feel Kang’s music.
So, what to make of the (as usual, enchantingly entitled) Athlantis? Well, for starters, it does not manage to be all things at once (a la the history-of-the-universe in sound as sonic experiment that is Theater of Mineral NADEs, or the out-of-somewhere tour de force of his masterpiece Virginal Co Ordinates. It is a more focused work, an earthy tone poem more along the lines of The Story of Iceland; it is the musical equivalent of what lurks just out of reach on the top shelf of some dusty stacks in an ancient library. In a good way. Those who cherish the oddness in Kang (or, to invoke another of his wonderfully appropriate album titles, the “sweetness of sickness”), won’t be disappointed here.
It would be insulting to suggest that this recording represents a less stuffy or esoteric type of contemporary classical music. And yet, it is, among other things, rather like a Cliff’s Notes overview of the sorts of choral and orchestral performances that used to be performed for popes or kings. In a good way. Think Gregorian chant meets sacred church hymns meets Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Part, only edgier. It might, in its distinctly odd but undeniably accessible fashion, be a gateway to some of the places Kang has already explored. Athlantis is an extended choral piece the artist himself describes as “something like an oratorio”, that incorporates the text from Cantus Circaeus by Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance Era philosopher who was burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Medieval voices and pastoral sounds float around and frame Bruno’s words (untranslated, naturally), featuring the indefatigable Mike Patton, used to delightful effect here, as he was on Virginal Co Ordinates, reminding us, and hopefully himself, how incomparably plangent his voice can be when he uses it for singing, as opposed to animal noises (although a smattering of those can be detected early on, undoubtedly due to contractual obligations). The other featured soloist is Jessica Kenney, whose delicate and inviting delivery is the ideal sweet to counter Patton’s restrained sour. Acoustic guitars, trumpets, sitars, a choir, and cerebral use of silence all combine to make music as it’s not made anymore, if indeed it ever was.
It is difficult to describe, or understand how he does it, but Kang, as always, draws from a deep well of styles and emotions. He is once again able to assemble several ostensibly incongruous elements, create an appropriate foundation, and instigate stellar performances from his collective team. Once more he succeeds in creating something unique and familiar. It is neither intimidating nor off-putting at first listen, but it nevertheless demands several spins to work its magic, and soon enough the listener becomes acquainted with these irresistible sounds and voices.
In an ideal world Kang would be, if not a household name, an artist properly appreciated by a curious and discerning majority that did not depend upon network television to tell them whom they should idolize. No matter. By continuing to depict forgotten as well as imagined worlds, Eyvind Kang manages to tell us new things about the one in which we dwell.