Prince Rama's first album for Paw Tracks delivers a patchwork of chanting and musical interludes, all rumbling along on heavy toms. Nice and strange.
Maybe the best thing about Prince Rama is that the band is truly weird. The trio consists of former members of a Krishna collective in Florida, the two sisters, Taraka and Nimai Larson, and Michael Collins. All three grew up participating in the religious chants and rituals. Though they have moved out into the larger world, and some of them have perhaps lapsed, nothing describes this album -- their fourth overall, but their first for Animal Collective's Paw Tracks -- as well as "ritualistic". There is a deep enthusiasm, a trancelike fervor that imbues each song -- though they are hardly songs, but rather a string of interconnecting pieces that work you up and over from beginning to end.
There was a time when Krishnas mostly played in hardcore bands, but the members of Prince Rama follow the old adage, write what you know. The music owes a lot to popular forms, like noise, trance, and prog rock, but the overwhelming style is closest to the drums and chants of unalloyed religious ritual. Maybe the closest comparison one could make to Prince Rama is the Wagnerian intensity of Magma. The French prog band centered on pounding drums and strange operatic chanting. Yet Prince Rama is ostensibly more peaceful than the bellicose, almost scary predecessor.
The bulk of the sound comes from pounding drums, chanting, and intense moans, yelps, and howls. Occasionally, more traditionally rock oriented sections of instrumentation come in, or snatches of melody break through the droning chants -- and these tend to be the standout moments on the record since they break up the monotony (desired) of the chanting.
Three of the tracks on the album are based on traditional Indian chants. The first two, "Om Mane Padme Hum" and "Om Namo Shivaya", set the ecstatic tone of the album. The second chant is more interesting musically, since after the voices drone on for a while, guitar and synth provide a bouncy melody that sounds both modern and traditional to run through the midrange of the song. The song ends with a carnivalesque series of triplets that recalls sounds from Animal Collective's last album.
"Thunderdrums", the name of the third track, gives a good description of the overall sound of Prince Rama. The hypnotic percussion and droning bass take up most of the sonic space of the record. The voices -- various levels of singing and chanting -- seem to stay up on the ceiling, flitting back and forth over the rumbling of the rhythm. But "Thunderdrums", coming off the first two chants, actually marks the first "rock" sounding song of the album. The song begins not with drums, but rather a nasty sounding low guitar line (which comes back on the guitar-driven, halting, "Mythras"). Apparently, "Thunderdrums" is "an homage" to Fitzgerald, but how so escapes me since the words being chanted are pretty much unintelligible.
"Lightening Fossil", one of the singles, has the most accessible melody, but it's still incredibly strange. A female voice sings a line followed by a low droning male sound, then both voices go into a seemingly normal chorus, which changes out the heavy drum sound for a tinny almost melodic percussion. There's a cool synth driving everything along into quick chant that sounds like a freakout from Hair or Magma again. Though this song is repetitive, it actually has a somewhat linear structure, like it's precipitating the climax of the album.
What makes Shadow Temple sound like a single religious experience is the vast wash, or room sound, that flattens out all of the melodic markers over the stomping percussion. (By the way, that "room sound" comes from Kurt Vonnegut's grandson's house as well as a haunted church, where Prince Rama recorded with the help of Avey Tare and Deakin.) The physicality of the album makes you feel like you've been participating in the ritual. By the end, you begin to feel tired. The sounds are confusing and overwhelming, almost scary (are you getting converted?). This is the best way to take your Krishnas; much better than being accosted on the street or at the airport. Prince Rama allows a vicarious participation that isn't precedented on money or belief.
The most admirable thing Prince Rama does consists in its strangeness. The energy of this album is thrilling, though it's not for everybody. Nothing quite sounds like this -- though you could think of similarities across a broad spectrum. And what this album does that is important is to remind you of the connection between the development of noise/drone in rock and roll and the influence of Eastern ritual music that seemed to peak in the late '60s and '70s. Prince Rama brings back traditional sounds to a scene that has been for the most part overtaken by electronics.