Jarboe – Mahakali

01/03/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Jarboe
Title: Mahakali
Label: The End Records
Genre: Experimental / Rock

Track Listing:

01 MahaKali, of Terrifying Countenance
02 And The Sky Which Was Once Filled With Light…
03 The House Of Void
04 Transmogrification
05 From Afar, Upon The Back of a Tiger
06 The Soul Continues
07 A Sea Of Blood And Hollow Screaming
08 Overthrown
09 Mouth of Flames
10 Ascend

The last few years have seen an upsurge in exuberant female vocalists. The End records is one of richest sources for this category, bringing us the likes of Stolen Babies and Ayin Aleph; and now Jarboe, the multifaceted banshee from the Swans, has been added to the growing list. These artists are not the kind to appeal to the masses, but for the discerning listener who thinks they’ve heard everything in what female vocals have to offer. Jarboe has been at this end of the scene for quite a while and now, eleven years after moving on from the legendary Swans, is sculpting a niche for herself in the experimental music category, which she does not only inventively, but modestly.

Mahakali is an unassuming, self-effacing work which doesn’t so much rebelliously work against musical conventions but is far more happy creating its own. Jarboe’s voice is capable of an impressive array of vocal timbres from howls, shrieks and nightmarish wails to soft, sultry whispers with Gothic consonance. The music is tailored to suit the vocals, rather than the other way round, so Mahakali is really a strudel of different musical ideas hinged together by a spiritual theme, revolving around the eponymous Hindu God mentioned in various Sanskrit texts. Exactly why the band have chosen this theme for the album is hardly explained apart from the fact that the idea “just happened” in a rehearsal session. I’m losing count of the amount of artists who are using ancient Eastern history for a focal point on their album’s thematic structure: the lure of old India is certainly an attractive one, but it does feels like a bit of a crowbar concept here.

The array of vocals on Mahalaki doesn’t just involve female ones, there are male vocal contributions from Phillip Anselmo of Down/Pantera, and Attila Csihar from Mayhem, so the variety and calibre is certainly impressive. The music itself experiments with drawn-out, long atmospheric passages using guitar drones and wails, such as the melodic “Mahakali of Terrifying Countenance”, or the rather more disturbing “A Sea of Blood and Hollow Screaming”, that utilises guitar drones and vocal shrieks for a seemingly endless 8 minutes. There are more melodic, even poplike moments such as “House of Void” and “Overthrown” which even veers off into neofolk territory in places, whereas “Mouth of Flames” touches on neoclassical and soundtrack music.

More than anything Mahakali is about creating atmospheres of many different sorts. Its pastiche of emotions will take you down multiple dark routes but there’s no recurring musical theme, the thematic strain being carried by the lyrical content only. Jarboe seems at her best in the more confrontational vocal passages and though she can scream and tear her vocal chords apart for great effect, it’s not quite as bewitching as Runhild from KHLYST or Diamanda Galas, both of whom could be quite respectable inspirations. Indeed, it may be Jarboe’s intention to throw the listener around like a raffle ticket in a tombola but by halfway through the album it becomes quite difficult to care. Yes it’s clever, yes it’s very well done, but it seems to have little spirit, being more of an indulgence for the artist than the listener.

Mahakali doesn’t get too ambitious, always managing to stay within the confines of experiential music rather than avant-garde. It’s certainly not an easy listen but given the quantity of styles on this disc could end up appealing to people along quite a wide spectrum of genres. Metal fans might get off on the harder vocals and drones, whereas ethereal and post-rock fans will appreciate its more creative, lighter moments. Mahakali covers many bases, but probably too many to hold my attention from beginning to end, in spite of its inventiveness. It’s all very well having manifold parts to your influences but some cohesion wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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