Manu Delago's Gorgeous 'Parasol Peak' Is the Ultimate Field Recording
Austrian hang player Manu Delago leads a group of musicians through a mountainous expedition, and the result, Parasol Peak, is a stunning collection of beautifully performed melodies.
One Little Indian
7 September 2018
It's one thing for a musical artist to abandon the recording studio and commit to the concept of "field recordings", but for someone as dedicated as Manu Delago, you can never really take that concept too far. The Austrian-born musician, revered as a pioneer of the hang (an instrument consisting of two half shells of steel, played with hands and sounding a lot like a steel drum), gained notoriety for his collaborations with Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, and Anoushka Shankar, among others. He previously released two largely electronic-driven solo albums – Silver Kobalt and Metromonk. His latest album, Parasol Peak, is a huge departure from those works and occupies a unique space in commercially released music.
For Parasol Peak (released on Björk's One Little Indian label), Delago led an ensemble of seven musicians on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps. During the trip, the musicians performed and recorded brand-new Delago compositions in various locations, altitudes, and climates. Think of it as "Outward Bound with Instruments". Additionally, the entire expedition was filmed, and the result is a visually and sonically stunning 30-minute documentary, available on Vimeo via a download code included with the album.
High-concept albums occasionally suffer under the oppressive weight of the concept itself, but that's not the case at all with Parasol Peak. The music is exquisite and intoxicating, a unique stew containing elements of folk, jazz, and a variety of international cues that bring to mind – among other things - traditional Asian music. It's like "World Music", but from a country nobody's ever heard of. Delago's hang pulls everything together and is aided by brass, woodwinds, accordion, cello, and percussion. Much of the percussion is performed on actual instruments, but in many cases – as the documentary shows – the musicians use non-musical gear such as carabiners and helmets, in addition to natural elements around them, such as trees and rocks, to produce a variety of sounds.
In many cases, sounds heard on the album are purely those of nature. Although the sound quality itself is impeccable – despite the elements, this is recording studio-level fidelity – you can still hear things like thunder, wind, babbling brooks and various types of precipitation in the background. But this is in no way distracting from the musical experience; if anything, it enhances it.
The tracks are all named after the locations where they were recorded, and in the documentary, the tracks are introduced with title cards that show both the name of the location and its altitude. In opening track "Parasol Woods" (altitude 923 meters), the musicians perform the gentle, percussive, brass-infused melody in an idyllic wooded area wearing gear suitable for an overcast autumn afternoon. Eventually, the trip proceeds with higher altitudes and colder temperatures, and by the time they perform "Ridge View" (altitude 2,203 meters), snow is all around, and awe-inspiring views are accompanied by musicians huddled in winter gear. Documentary director Johannes Aitzelmuller notes in the press release that sometimes they were limited to only two takes, due to cold fingers, high winds and temperature drops causing instruments to fall quickly out of tune.
At "Parasol Peak" (altitude 3,003 meters), the ensemble appear tired but determined, the expedition likely a sobering experience. As a result, the song has a minor-key, downbeat feel, as if the musicians are grateful to experience the beauty all around them but are perhaps ready to begin their descent. In fact, once they are safely at "Base Camp", they record the closing track within the safe warmth of their lodge.
It should be noted that Parasol Peak works very well as a stand-alone, audio-only experience. The music is that good, and the musicians make an exceptionally tight ensemble. But the accompanying video pays off immensely. Seeing the musicians make their way through the various elements while still managing to produce a beautiful collection of recordings should be required viewing for any rock star who complains about the conditions of your average recording studio.