Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: October Equus - Saturnal (2011, AltrOck)

Some people are mercurial, others are saturnal.
Which one are you?

The Spanish instrumental progressive/avant-rock group October Equus is back with their third full-length (I am not counting the 2004 release, Hydra). October Equus don’t rest on their laurels and repeat the same album but rather change things and develop with each release, showing the group’s growth and maturation. With their 2006 s/t album (Ma. Ra. Cash Records), the influences of Present, Univers Zero and King Crimson were apparent, whereas in 2008’s Charybdis (RAIG) had a zeuhl flavour and sounded more bombastic and daring than its predecessor. With Saturnal the band has signed with Italian label AltrOck, my current favourite label and a treasure trove for all things progressive and mind-blowing. In here the band seems to recall some of their s/t release, with added complexity, density of sound and succinctness. I also would make a comparison, in at least a few songs, to Miriodor’s recent albums, in rhythm and spirit, but done in October Equus’ unique manner.

The core of the band remains guitarist Ángel Ontalva (or by his real name Ángel Rodriguez Morales, who also created the gorgeous artwork for the album), keyboards player Víctor Rodríguez and bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, alongside their, by now, usual saxophonist and flautist Fran Mangas. Planeta Imaginario drummer Vasco Trilla and saxophonist Alfonso Muñoz join the lineup for this album, as well as cellist Pablo Ortega.

Listening to the musicians’ playing alongside enjoying the music is a fun exercise in any album, and here in particular. Amanda’s bass gives a powerful and noticeable undertone, a solid belly to the tunes as Ángel’s cold sounding guitar soars in a slow, slightly dissonant and angular fashion, accompanied by Victor’s warm chords contrasting the guitar tone. The saxophones and cello add to the band’s eerie sound, a sound that seems to be coming from a far away and scary place. Watching the artwork in the booklet as you listen to the music will help understand what I mean by this, as there is an otherworldly quality to their music.

At times, their music would work as a soundtrack to some classic horror or scary movie, in particular the first piece, Estructuras primitivas en el crepúsculo. In other instances the music offers some respite from that atmosphere with a slightly faster pace and lighter mood, such as in the second piece, El furioso despertar del homúnculo neonato. This piece features wonderful drumming performance by Vasco Trilla, providing the piece with a moderately and frantic sounding tempo. The various pieces on here alternate between the somber and sinister sounding to the somewhat lighter and less dense side, though all bear the clear mark of the band. While one may complain of monotony on the album, that would be, in my view, due to superficial listening and not paying enough attention to the individual songs and how they develop.

But what is common to all the compositions is the sense that I’ve stepped into another realm the minute I pressed the play button. You might feel you’ve been thrown into a strange and foreign land with rules you do not fully understand and an unnatural and peculiar scenery that seems to come at you from all directions. But the effort is worth it, in my view, as the band’s music offers a distinctive experience as well as a fascinating one with a lot to discover in repeated listening.

I will say this, though: the music on Saturnal is (or can be to those unfamiliar with the style) dense, complicated and hard to penetrate. Indeed, this is an album that the listener has to clear his way into, get past the walls of seemingly “unpleasant” and hard to grasp sounds and vibes. This is not to say the music is “bad” or un-enjoyable, but that one has to take the time to have a clear path into the music and be able to feel comfortable listening to it. While I’m quite used to this “type of music”, it took me a while to penetrate its thick sound and jam-packed content. With 13 pieces on here, all written by either Ángel Ontalva or Víctor Rodríguez, you’re in for an intense and long journey. Perhaps splitting the album into two listening sessions would help make it easier to swallow for those not fully comfortable with the music. But in my opinion, it is a journey well worth taking.

Prog Archives band page
Buy at AltrOck (Europe) or Wayside (USA).

Track list:
1. Estructuras primitivas en el crepúsculo
2. El furioso despertar del homúnculo neonato
3. Una mirada furtiva en la Noche Saturnal
4. Ingravidez
5. Llegó como un amanecer ardiente
6. Realidad ciega
7. Avanzando velozmente contra vientos lacerantes
8. Un mundo de sueños abstractos
9. No pudieron detener el silencio
10. Sutiles ecuaciones vivientes
11. Ella era invisible en la oscuridad
12. Abre los ojos!
13. Último refugio

- Ángel Ontalva / guitar
- Víctor Rodríguez / keyboards
- Amanda Pazos / bass
- Fran Mangas / saxophone soprano tenor, flute
- Alfonso Muñoz / saxophone soprano, alto and bariton
- Pablo Ortega / cello
- Vasco Trilla / drums

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