Picture this: you’re with this band of about a dozen people, and you have published three really nice albums, played on countless stages with great success, and then take a break from releasing new material for some eight years. How would you come back?
Somehow I keep having this picture in my head. Ross McHenry, bassist and Shaolin Afronauts band leader, jumping in his car, driving around Australia like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, visiting all the old band members to tell them that they need to get back together again for this super special project. Not in the name of the Lord, no, but something equally fundamental, for sure.
In my imagination I see them quitting jobs they never cared much for, walking out of rehearsals for some other band they never felt very attached to, telling their spouses that they’ll be gone for a while, you know how it is, when Ross calls, you just gotta go.
Cut. A small concert hall, all empty, just a few guys in front of the stage, more musicians arriving with a curious and puzzled look, what are we doing here, what the hell is this, and then, when everyone is there, one of them asking exactly that, Ross, come on, what are we doing here, and he says making music, what else would we do, and then yeah, sure, but what, what for?
And that’s when he tells them. Our new album, man. Or, to be more precise, our new albums. Five of them. Oh, yeah, right, we don’t do an album for eight years, so we got to catch up and do five of them. Maybe a little bit of sarcasm was intended, but somehow it didn’t make it to the actual statement. A moment of silence. Some pondering over the general idea of this. Maybe Ross telling them something like do you really think I would bring us all back together for a skimpy little EP? Well, one of the guys finally says, let’s get our stuff on stage then. We got work to do.
Obviously I have no idea how this project really came about. Doubtlessly though, coming back after eight years with a box of five albums is probably a first in music history, and a pretty bold move too. But it says a lot about the band as well – you really only do this kind of thing if you know that the project won’t fail. That the boxes will sell. You need to know that you can rely on your fan base, and on your ability to make them happy.
Unlike other box sets, this is not a kind of anthology or something. And if you read the accompanying info, you also understand that “The Fundamental Nature Of Being” is not a five LP album – it’s five albums in one box (and sold separately after the box is sold out). Five albums that were recorded in five days, reaching across the whole spectrum of music the band is loved for.
The breadth of talent and interest is maybe one of the reasons why this album ended up serving almost four hours of music on five pieces of vinyl. As much as I may already be familiar with the band (see my comments on their first album “Flight Of The Ancients”) – I had not been aware of the Shaolin Afronauts being a highly capable Jazz band as well, a side that gets plenty of room on this album. They even venture beyond that with some experimental excursions that touch the esoteric as well.
When you listen to all five albums in succession, they take you from what you know – their addictive Afro-Soul – to what their long years of collaboration must have led to – music that goes way beyond the band’s previous boundaries. It’s quite a trip, and if you listen in on the first track “Broken Flowers” and then jump over to the last one, the fourth and last part of “Reflections”, you understand just how far these sessions have taken the musicians. And you simply don’t get from here to there within the playing time of a single album.
So – what’s it like to take the whole four hour trip? First of all, it is evident that Ross McHenry didn’t have to collect his band members and reunite anything. The way these twelve guys jump in on “Broken Flowers” tells you that they must have played hundreds of concerts together, and not just until eight years ago. Yes, the release info talks about “rare” live appearances during these eight years, but no, they haven’t lost any of their magic and as always they are all in, no holds barred. In fact, if they recorded these five albums in five days, it probably also means that they recorded them as a band, all live. If not, then Ross McHenry is an absolute magician in creating a live sound.
Their fourth part of the “Abyssinian Suite” (the first three parts were among the highlights of their 2014 album “Follow The Path”) is even cranking it up a notch, one of the most infectious tracks on this side of this epic. “Dust” is wonderfully retro with extended guitar solos, a big fat horn section and an almost Zappaesque mid-section, “Valley Of The Crucible” all but bursts with positivity, energy and beautifully dramatic themes and riffs, the guys playing like an orchestra or a big band, wide and big and momentous, and on “Shakedown” it’s all bouncy happiness, sounding like something Paul Simon must have fallen in love with before he went to create “Graceland”.
Somewhere on the second album, we start to notice that the Afro Soul part of the mix is gradually receding while other elements are added. Or it’s more like a reversal – playing various styles from Psych Rock to Jazz to even something close to Latin, all that with elements of African Music woven in. The band is opening things up quite a bit.
Is that a good idea? Absolutely. It’s as if you can listen to the band growing, or as if you are witnessing them finding out just how far they can move away from their home ground without losing their identity. And all this while they are keeping the energy up, chugging away, letting things fly. The heart keeps opening up every time the horn section sets in with their wonderful themes, before the solos start, and and when they things together again after everyone has had their time in the spotlight. “High Noises” for example. How I’d love to witness them playing this live on stage… If you’re ever low on energy, or even worse, low on hope, listen to this.
This is the second time the whole album is played in full on a nice late summer afternoon, and I keep thinking that it’s an extremely remarkable achievement to deliver four hours of music and not let the listener down. It’s not even as if giving the whole five albums your full attention is in any way tiring or making you think things like okay they could have left this track out or even a simple not sure about this one – it is all worth exploring.
Especially the vinyl version, I need to add. There’s so much music that it doesn’t even fit the five pieces of vinyl. Must have been hell to pick the tracks that won’t be featured there – but I think the job was well done. It’s acceptable to leave out the Jazz Rock throw back of “Way Of The Long Death” while skipping the wonderfully emotional “Inside The Flame Burns Brightly Still” would have been a crime. One exception maybe: I did miss the wonderfully epic “Recollection” on the vinyl edition. Good thing Bandcamp sales include the download – at least it didn’t get omitted completely.
Oh, before I forget to mention this – the box itself needs to get a special mention. Clearly made with love. Every album in its own cardboard sleeve and high quality inner sleeve, well-crafted twelve page booklet in album size, with all personnel listed for all tracks and extensive notes from the band. This is how it’s done. This box is a reason to buy a turntable.
At the end of the second album we step into the “Hall Of Bright Carvings” – a kind of transitional piece that prepares us for what is to follow – a step towards music that is inspired by Spiritual Jazz, “influenced by the sonic world of 1960’s avant-garde”, as the liner notes explain. The band dedicates the third and fourth album to this side of their spectrum, and even if we get a few touches of Africa here and there, we are now discovering the Afronauts as a Jazz band.
The entry point is “Morning Song” – a piece that slightly nods towards “Journey In Satchidananda”, but has lots of life of its own, sometimes a little rowdy, except when the horn section smoothes things out with themes that keep that little bit of Africa in all that Jazz. What really makes this other side of the band fully authentic is the amazing amount of energy that goes into the tracks – “Sun Spiral” bursts at every seam, with a big and brassy main theme.
Things get deeper from there. Where the first two pieces of this second part of “The Fundamental Nature Of Being” had clear and tight structure, the 24 minutes of “Inner Working Outer Being” open things up some more, the rhythmical core of the three movements much more left to the improvisational interplay between the band members. The liner notes talk about “free and partially directed improvisation” – that’s most probably just where we are at that point. “Many of the works are first takes” is what we read as well – I wouldn’t be surprised of “Inner Working Outer Being” was one of them.
If you’re a big fan of “Flight Of The Ancients”, the second part of this piece might just have you wondering what happened to your favorite band. Challenging stuff, and I admit that this is the part within the four hour journey that I struggle with. But I let them play, of course, I don’t just hop off, it’s not that kind of journey.
Part of this second chapter of the album is a more pronounced presence of electronics, namely a Moog Model D. It opens the title track, a four part suite that takes up 40 of the album’s 240 minutes. In Part 1, it’s cycling in waves that resemble the sound of a didgeridoo while horns and piano improvise freely on top of it, Part 2 is a fast paced ride with lots of great solo work, Part 3 partly slides into Modern Classical, and Part 4 all but returns to where the “Morning Song” greeted us.
And then we’re off to the third chapter, the fifth and final album, “Reflections”. Again four parts, again close to 40 minutes. Most of the Afronauts, including Ross McHenry, step aside here to let some of the band members improvise freely. On each track, Ed Zuccollo provides the electronic elements that his band mates interact with – pianist Brenton Foster on three of the four parts, Adam Page and Jason McMahon with their saxophones on two parts. The result is (electronic) music that hovers somewhere between Ambient, Experimental and maybe even Modern Classical, for a lack of a better label. Not that it would need a categorization – but when you started out enjoying the Afro Soul you went for and your journey brings you to the final part of “Reflections” you might want to know where you are and how you got there. Personally, I think that “Reflections 2” is actually a love song, and when I listen to it it doesn’t even matter anymore where my sonic journey started.
The liner notes explain that “the role of improvisation in unearthing the true nature of each composition has always been at the core of our band’s identity”. And that they have “evolved to champion the role of both collective and individual improvisation as a central feature of our music.” It all sounds very clear and logical, and I can accept the concept of improvisation as the element that combines all the music on this album. And still, I wonder what it must have felt like, to record these five albums over the course of five days, even in (mostly) sequential order, to walk out of the studio each evening after the sessions of the day have been completed, every day representing a new aspect of what the band is all about, to stand there and look back after day five, man what a ride, four days ago we recorded all that Afro Soul stuff, and today we’re walking out after having explored electronic synthesis, everything quiet, minimal, floating… how does it feel to start firmly in the band’s past at the start of the week and conclude the sessions in its future?
Involuntarily, I return to my image of the band standing in front of the stage, this time having packed their instruments, having switched off the recording console, looking at each other and wondering how all this had happened, maybe even whether it had happened at all, and wondering what these five days and five albums will do to them, what effect they will have.
My four hours are over now. I did what the band had kindly asked to do: “to listen to the five albums consecutively if you can”. I definitely urge you to do the same. Even if you choose to go for the digital version. Don’t skip, don’t shuffle (that should be illegal anyway), go from 1 to 29 without interruption. You’ll be able to feel and understand the band. An amazing experience.
Release for review:
THE SHAOLIN AFRONAUTS – THE FUNDAMENTAL NATURE OF BEING – FREESTYLE RECORDS – FSRLP140BOX