At its core, jazz is a genre that relies on experimentation. Sometimes this comes in the form of carefully rehearsed improvisation, and sometimes, as on the new Heliocentrics album A World of Masks, it comes in the form of straight aural acid.
The Heliocentrics have never been much for linear movement in their music. This year marks ten years since the release of debut album Out There, and in the last decade, the group has played Ethio-jazz with Mulatu Astatke, Middle East-inspired free jazz with Lloyd Miller, and Afrofunk with Orlando Julius, among other things. Now, with the addition of singer Barbora Patkova, the Heliocentrics break planetary orbit entirely for a new, bizarre trip into the avant-garde. You might love it. You also might hate it. You might question everything you’ve thought of as music. No matter what your reaction is, though, one thing is almost certain: you’re going to have one.
Face-melting psychedelia opens up the album as Patkova, backed by ominous arpeggios and electronic squeaks, goes from a murmur to a shout. In four minutes, she reaches total abandon, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album, where anything can happen — as long as it’s in a minor key.
It’s hard to describe in words what A World of Masks feels like, and that’s because it evokes images. Listening to it is an almost synesthetic experience, stimulating the imagination with an intensity that makes it feel a little like hallucinating. The Heliocentrics conjure up interdimensional circuses, electronic jungles, and darkwave dancefloors. They create the surreal and cultivate a freeform wonderland.
All in all, there’s a lot to take in.
Patkova adds a compelling dimension to the group. She goes from ember to wildfire with the kind of untamed energy that always sounds like a live performance instead of a studio mix. Every track she’s on has a raw edge to it, but also looser structure; the ensemble tends to save her fire for more fluid moments, which gives her voice ample room to wander — which it does. Patkova is a risk-taker, and she is exactly where she belongs singing with the Heliocentrics.
Near the end, a few tracks play it a little more straight. Bluesy electric guitars add a glow to smokey track “The Wake”. “Square Wave” is synth heaven, and while plucked strings in the back get weird, they don’t pull away from the retro funk beats. At the very end of the album, “The Uncertainty Principle” is a starry, instrumental rock and roll piece that cleanses the palate after so many fuzzy freakouts.
In the end, this is a triumph for the Heliocentrics and the people who love what they stand for: shameless jamming and an unfettered jazz spirit. Each member of the group has a command of what their instrument can do (whether it’s supposed to or not), as well as what their fellow band members can do, and as improvisational as it feels, it never falls apart. A World of Masks can be a difficult album to take in all at once, but if you have the time and the focus, it can take your brain places you won’t find on any other album.