Flamingods use a wealth of exotic instruments to make rich, unusual textures. Too bad they don't work nearly as hard on their songwriting.
Flamingods is a London-based band in which all the members grew up together in Bahrain. They’ve also spent time in locations such as Dubai, Italy, and Albania. That worldly experience comes through in their music, which is richly textured. It also comes through in the sheer amount of gear they use. The press materials for Majesty, the band’s third album, runs through an impressive list of instruments. Beyond the expected guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, said list includes sarangi, taishogoto, rhythm ukele (a typo for “ukulele”? Google seems to think so!), phin guitar, gamelan (which I thought was an Indonesian orchestra, not a single instrument), congas, and darbuka. That’s a lot of different stuff, and the band makes use of a wide variety of sounds.
With all those exotic textures floating around, Majesty is an album soaked in atmosphere. But after three albums, you’d think that the band would be better at songwriting. At times Flamingods seem so focused on using those unusual instruments and building those textures that they forget to write a melody. Or, at least, they spend so much time on the atmosphere that song construction becomes an afterthought. That is not an issue unique to Flamingods; it seems fairly common amongst artists that self-identify as “psychedelic”.
The first single “Rhama” is a good example. The song builds up with a wealth of exotic sounds, with a simple but decent percussion rhythm and bass groove. But when Kamal Rasool’s vocals come in, they’re like a flat line with slight bumps. There’s a case to be made that his droning singing is intentional for the style of the song, but there’s just enough melody to it that it feels like a half-assed effort. That's too bad because the song has a lot of character but lacks a center. Whether that is a vocal melody or a guitar riff or something else, it just feels like it’s missing a key element, and that element is not provided by the vocals.
Second single “Jungle Birds” fares better. The vocals here have a bit of soul to them, and they command the listener’s attention. Meanwhile, the percussion rhythm is nicely syncopated, and the fluttering, flute-like riff that floats above the groove is distinctive. None of these elements are compelling enough to carry a long form psychedelic jam, but “Jungle Birds” is over after only two minutes and 38 seconds. It makes a good impression and gets out before interest starts to fade.
When the band makes a conscious effort to find a good melody they make better songs. Rocking album centerpiece “Gojira” is an instrumental that opens with a simple, chiming guitar riff and leans heavily on that riff to carry the first half of the song. As the song continues and the riff begins to go through variations, the rhythm guitar part also evolves, and the already-fast drumming gets more complex. Then the riff drops out completely, and the song shifts focus to the drums for a drum solo that starts chaotic, becomes increasingly groove-oriented, and finishes with a series of complicated and fascinating rhythms. Embracing this Led Zeppelin-esque aesthetic allows Flamingods to become rock stars for a song and it works really well for them.
Similarly successful is Majesty’s penultimate track, “Yuka”. It also opens with a simple but catchy guitar (Maybe? Sounds like it could be a slightly different guitar-like instrument) riff that supports a decent verse vocal. In place of a traditional chorus, the band drops the vocals altogether and just lets a good melody, played on several instruments in unison, unspool. The vocals return for another verse, as does the chorus melody before the band takes off into a jam that comprises the back half of the song. During the jam Flamingods start to lose the thread, leaning too heavily on a less-interesting variation of the chorus melody but they draw the interest back in the song’s last 30 seconds by amping up the volume and power of the playing.
Nothing else on Majesty works as well as “Gojira” and “Yuka". The sleepy, Gorillaz-like vocals on the title track provide a nice example of how hard it is to replicate what Damon Albarn does with that band. Nothing in the languid groove of the song grabs the ear beyond the basic atmospherics. “Taboo Groves” is a pleasant piece of 1960s-style tropical pop that is already starting to meander before the track abruptly fades out after two minutes and 48 seconds, which seems to indicate the band just played on and on without getting anything else interesting out of that record. “Majestic Fruit” most distinctive bits are some flutter-tongued flute and a pair of ringing finger cymbals. Those are nice flourishes, but not usually the best parts of a song. “Anya” begins with a moody piano and wordless vocal that sets a very successful late-night desert atmosphere. It then attempts to push that setting for over six minutes, even adding breathy saxophones later on. It manages about four minutes before boredom sets in.
Listeners who regularly immerse themselves in psychedelic rock and pop may find more to like on Majesty than I did. Flamingods really do use their wide array of gear to create nonstandard musical textures, and they have some pretty good grooves throughout the album. But for me, the band’s lack of compelling melodies makes the album a pleasant but mostly forgettable experience.