Artists are walking a fine line when they combine neo-classical music and modern jazz with the occasional vocal performance thrown in, both sung and spoken word. Do they have something to say, or are they just putting on airs? For their Gearbox records debut Illusions & Realities, the London-based collective Levitation Orchestra are swinging for the fences. There are 12 instrumentalists and two vocalists plugging away at a mixture of music that runs from cinematic chamber music to hard bop with a few pop variations in between. It all adds up to a pretty tangled maze, one that glides on lofty intentions and a few high-minded missteps. The talent involved is immense, but the emotional connection stays elusive most of the time. The longer the album plays, the more confusing things get.
The Levitation Orchestra features a trumpet, a flute, two tenor saxophones, two violins, a cello, a harp, a guitar, a double bass, keyboards, and drums. That’s quite a lot of talent to steer at once, but the ensemble pulls it off well a majority of the time. Opener “Life is Suffering/Send and Receive Love Only” gets off to a good enough start with its slow harp introduction and a serenade from the string section, including an e-bowed guitar. Then the drums kick in, clearing the way for vocalist Plumm to assert herself over the mix with her raspy moan. “Our bodies speak in thousands of ways,” she repeatedly sings, ignoring her own insight. Having reached a dead-end, the Levitation Orchestra turn the song’s introduction into a coda, though one gets the impression that it’s not as delicately arranged as it was the first time around.
The foundation of “Listen to Her” is even more rickety with no musical focal point and Plumm’s indecipherable groaning. The track is saved by Dilara Aydin-Corbett’s feminist’s tirade that borders on angry hip-hop performance art: “So sad! / It makes me so mad! / That our bodies are considered rapable!” “Listen to Her,” indeed. At least “Delusion” features a simple and memorable melody from Plumm, only to be offset by a spoken word passage from a man who boasts about how he can mess with your amygdala.
“Spiral (Die, Die, Die)” isn’t just a peculiar title, it’s the musical equivalent of a whirling dervish, spinning the listener in a rapid circle. “Between Shadows” bears a resemblance to something the Penguin Cafe Orchestra would have recorded on a drowsy day, though six minutes is a long time to draw out something that lacks a strong melodic figure. The album’s closer “Many in Body, One in Mind”, considered to be “the prime philosophy behind everything [Levitation Orchestra] do[es]”, takes advantage of every bar of its ten-minute existence by transforming a mellow, bluesy introduction into a psychedelic jam that tees up Dilara Aydin-Corbett for another spit-fire performance. However, the meaning of this one is far more vaguely optimistic than that of “Listen to Her”.
The middle portion of Illusions & Realities is comprised of a four-movement suite named “Child”, the concluding movement being released ahead of the album. The group begin “Child” with an atmospheric approach but eventually steer things towards fusion territory, allowing the flute and violins a chance to solo. The third movement begins mystically with a harp and a recitation about “ancestry” or some such thing, giving way to a large mix of winds and strings that don’t bear an easy label. The final movement returns to the fusion sound, rolling along a harp ostinato that’s not jazzy in the least. This combination of styles works to Levitation Orchestra’s advantage, keeping the listener from realizing that they are listening to both jazz and non-jazz simultaneously.
Illusions & Realities has so much going for it that it’s a little frustrating to find that, after so many listens, it still falls short. All of the musicians are more than capable performers and they blend styles rather easily. Illusions & Realities sounds good while it’s playing, but after it’s over, only a little bit of it will stick around. Perhaps there is a surplus of effort that contributes to the music’s lumbering nature. If that’s the case, the Levitation Orchestra aren’t too far in their career to not try and sort out a healthy balance.