Cloudland Canyon abstraction, Family Atlantica joining continents
Like bands such as Stereolab and Broadcast, Cloudland Canyon has been fruitfully appropriating and reconfiguring music on the more adventurous side from decades past.
The offerings on Cloudland Canyon’s compilation Requiems Der Natur 2002-2004 reveal the group’s early years to concentrate on swirling psychedelia and abstract sound forms, and within the last ten years, the band—led by front man Kip Uhlhorn—has adjusted its soft focus to a slightly sharper image, marked with a more prominent use of percussion and a plowing drive, while retaining its freedom to drift, like on the 2007 track “Silver Tongue Sisyphus.”
It’s seemingly open about its influences, which aren’t necessarily musical ones—take, for instance, some song titles on 2008’s Lie in Light, including “Krautwerk” (ostensibly a portmanteau of “Krautrock” and “Kraftwerk”), “You & I” (possibly a Silver Apples nod) and “Mothlight Part 1” (name-checking Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde film).
Cloudland Canyon’s third proper album, An Arabesque, starts off strongly with “Where’s the Edge” featuring a neo-NEU! groove, a one-note bass line, an unstoppable momentum and some wild drum moments that provide injections of adrenaline periodically; in the background, ethereal vocals hover, and the result is perhaps like a more cosmic and aggressive version of Stereolab.
The second track, “Try Faking It,” moves abruptly into ‘80s new wave territory, with synth pulses and drum machine beats, while Uhlhorn’s wife Kelly provides detached, echoing vocals that actually work well with the propulsive, somewhat inspiring proceedings.
An Arabesque was produced by Peter Kember, better known as Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, which makes sense, knowing his recent left-of-center electronic/dance-friendly work with acts such as Panda Bear and MGMT. Like the titular arabesque, the album can let the listener focus on details of its spiraling designs or just behold the big picture, and toward the middle of the album, things sort of melt together, after the opening, distinctive salvo.
The main closing number, “Psychic Insistent,” pulls the proceedings back on track into focus, with an odd not-quite-gospel positive mood among the whirling, glistening synthetics, like refreshing aural raindrops.
The international ensemble Family Atlantica’s name is a reference to the back-and-forth migration of musical styles over centuries across the Atlantic Ocean, and its three key members are each from different continents.
Band leader and multi-instrumentalist Jack Yglesias, born in London, is also known for his work in the jazz-funk group The Heliocentrics, and musician, singer and poet Luzmira Zerpa, wife of Yglesias, draws from her musical background in Venezuela; percussionist and vocalist Kwame Crentsil was a cast member for the musical Fela! and brings his skills from his Nigerian and Ghanaian heritage.
With this massive amount of musical history from which to draw upon, one concern might be that the group attempts to cover too much territory and would possibly water it down, making some kind of flavorless aural gruel with the cringeworthy label of “world music”. This writer is happy to report that on Family Atlantica’s second album, Cosmic Unity, that is not the case, with each distinct element retaining its character in a complicated and refreshing mix that, above all, has an irresistible groove.
The stirring opening number “Okoroba” jumps right in with a thumb-piano pattern enhanced by an Afrobeat rhythm with a furious pace, with funk and psych inflections, call-and-response vocals and some tongue-twisting singing from Zerpa. Caribbean flavors reveal themselves with steel drums among the early-’70s-style funk and Ethio-jazz on “Enjera,” and even some dub echoing is used on “Cacao,” sung in Spanish with sharp, bluesy harmonica playing among the aromatic musical stew.
If anything, Cosmic Unity is relentlessly concise and tight—while any groove here could easily be sustained for a long while, instead, each song is a mere three or four minutes long, with a handful of brief interlude tracks. Two legendary saxophonists make welcome appearances: Nigerian Afro-pop giant Orlando Julius and Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, who is still killing it in his nineties.
Cosmic Unity can be appreciated on a certain level, from those who recognize its many, many sources, but its compelling rhythms and arrangements, masterfully executed, provide a universal appeal, also.