The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – Here Be Dragons (2009)

This band has a penchant for staying under the radar, although their melodies, especially on this album, are attuned to the brilliance and emotional depth explored by Portishead and Massive Attack. I say especially on this album, because they seem to have opened themselves, at least partly, to a wider audience as of late. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble is a rather twisted band at heart, with an interest in plumbing some of the stranger sides of music. They used to do that a lot more a little while back, but ever since they came up with a modular band structure – that is to say, a sort-of alter-ego designed especially for going all out in improvisational experiments, cleverly titled “The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation” – they’ve managed to keep it under control and present some really great, slightly sinister, enthralling music.

“Here Be Dragons” is a tough album, nebulous and dramatic. There are gorges of dissonance, lush mists descend in the blink of an eye drowning you out, only to provide wonderful contrast with the soaring, sparkling brilliance of the occasional ray of sonic sunlight bursting through. The music never seems to settle on a pattern, cracking up and evaporating every time you think you’ve gotten used to it. It would normally feel like  a cheap shot to keep comparing their sound to mountainous landscapes, but I really feel like it’s the way to go in their case. There’s something volcanic about them. A slumbering titan of sound bubbling under the surface, shifting in its sleep once in a while and shaking the earth along with it. There are lava flows and sulphurous fumes, white caps of snow and jagged rocks lying in wait at every step, and the band doesn’t make much of an effort to carve you a comfy foot-path to follow. But I think that’s good. The savage soundscape works best like this – it’s not meant to cuddle, it’s meant to awe. And, in my case, it certainly does.

Driving, generous bass lines, smooth and unpredictable beats, incandescent brass melodies and improvisations, crystalline piano chords… The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble’s music is geological, defined by gravity, weight, volume and tectonic movement rather than the ebbs and flows of more fluid soundsmiths. It is also theatrical, powerfully visual, in the sense that listening to this album incites a myriad ideas for stage and costume design in my mind, stage designs to act as counterpoints to the human presence and activity. Imagine the contrast between a primeval space, a cold, slow, ancient space, defined by patience and silence, in which characters from a play appear, caught between their own brand of conflict and the inhospitable circumstance – I’m thinking existentialist theater at its most striking.

I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a combination of electronic music and jazz of such caliber, save perhaps for the Esbjorn Svensson Trio’s last offering, the staggering “Leucocyte”. But even that album isn’t as consistent and relentless. So, give these guys a try, for dramatic days and for vibrant vespers.

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