What happens when familiar Ninja Tune jazz and breakbeat elements get rewired for live instrumentation with a post-rock slant? Greater flexibility allows for arrangements that can seamlessly progress, but just as seamlessly lose focus.
Few record labels have a sound as consistent or distinctive as that of Ninja Tune. For roughly 15 years now, the UK label has been at the forefront of jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop and trip-hop, with signature acts like Amon Tobin, Coldcut, DJ Food, Kid Koala and many others producing a notable volume of quality material over the years. The sounds they produce naturally vary with the project, but still possess a surprising cohesion: nearly all Ninja Tune acts work in an atmospheric, rhythmic style, heavily laden with sampled jazz motifs and bits of old film soundtrack, cobbled together in a way that is as natural as it is compelling. Part of this consistency is likely a result of the careful selection of bands the label signs (or attracts -- of course Blockhead would find his way to them), and part may be due to the label's uniquely democratic manner of planning out its releases, with many members working together to winnow tracklists from a new signee's work.
The last five years, however, have seen the label branching out, both by continuing to expand the roster of their hip-hop sub-label Big Dada, and by toying with new approaches, from the fluid live compositions of Jaga Jazzist, to the peculiar indie-rock-with-turntables that introduced us to Fog, to the Liverpool-based psychedelic rock of Super Numeri. Together, the new range of sounds present on these releases seems to have laid the groundwork for Loka's debut album, Fire Shepherds.
Loka, composed of Mark Kyriacou and Super Numeri's Karl Webb, create expansive, atmospheric post-rock that seems to fall somewhere between Tortoise and the Cinematic Orchestra, coupling the former's emphasis on jazz fusion influences and loose, live instrumentalism with the latter's namesake sense for dramatic soundtracking. Building up layers of guitar, bass, strings, keyboards, brass, and woodwinds, all bound together by hypnotic percussion, the tracks still seem to loop at times but are organic in a way more sample-driven compositions can't be. And true to their name (Sanskrit for "world, place, or plane of existence"), Loka's densely-realized-but-spacious tracks seem to inhabit a plane of their own, extending unbroken from horizon to horizon.
All of these features are in evidence on "Safe Self Tester", which kicks the album off like the overture to a classy spy film. Opening string swells fall away into a mesmerizing stand-up bass-backed breakbeat, with gradually reincorporates the full string section via keys and background samples before speeding up into what could be a chase scene through a Moroccan marketplace. The song moves relentlessly forward over eight minutes, progressing through slow-evolving repetition so naturally that when it reintroduces the opening string theme at the end, it sounds new again. "Meet Dad", on the other hand, leaps immediately into an uptempo fusion piece built around and over noisy stabs of keyboard.
Unfortunately, Loka's careful repetition at times becomes more drawback than asset. More exotic North African influences and an urgent undercurrent of bass and drums aren't enough to keep Fire Shepherds' ten minute centerpiece "Freda Mae" from eventually floundering in a directionless cavern of echoed instrumental noodling and cacophonous horns, while "Airfling" seems to lose focus in its mid-stretch. And with only seven songs, if a couple slip by unnoticed, it's all too sizeable a portion of the album. The disc regains it sense of purpose, however, in the single "Beginningless", the album's most compact package of ominous horns, clanking bells and jittery percussive rattle, carrying it through the majestic two-part "Tabernacle" to the finish.
Loka continues a compelling trend in the diversification of the Ninja Tune roster, borrowing classic arrangement elements from the label's older acts and revitalizing them through a seamless live approach, melding jazz and post rock into sinuous, flowing tracks that often end far from their origins. At the same time, the improvisational element afforded by the live band setup also allows some of the songs to become cut adrift, losing their sense of direction for minutes at a stretch. Hypnotic, yes, but not always vital. Nevertheless, while Loka could stand some tightening of their arrangements, they are nonetheless a welcome development of the Ninja Tune sound, and well worth watching.