Nagual – Nagual (Ergot Records)


Nagual - Nagual (Ergot Records)

I really don’t know what goes on in Oberlin, Ohio. Is there some kind of transcendental portal? Large-scale water supply drugging? Compulsory teaching of Frippertronics in high schools? Whatever the reason, the city is where Ian McColm and David Shapiro birthed the Nagual project, and its first LP of structured improvisation is a creepy knockout. If you’re looking for that sort of blissful-yet-terrified drone which bands such as Stars of the Lid or Death Row Radio do so well, you’re well served.

The word Nagual refers to an individual who (according to Mesoamerican folk religion) has the ability to transform themselves into an animal. Through the tracks there’s the distinct feeling that the duo are attempting to turn themselves into electricity. Though it’s not always the grinding, persona-free sparking which populates some drone recordings: there’s a sense of intelligence, sometimes malevolent, at play

The pair’s music rests largely on considered looping, played against and degraded. Opener ‘Honey River Lacquer’ is echoed, modulated and sometimes pitch-bent piano – a version of Stockhausen’s Mantra in space, perhaps? – competing for attention with a percussive bouncing sound, possibly electronic. The proto-Glass piano is supplemented by an ominious drone, offering unsettled rumblings, before a higher guitar part enters. It’s first cousin to the dolphin-wail/seagull section of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, but shot through with raw electricity.

Halfway through the track the piano punches out and we’re left in a land of occasional static, a hovercar flying over Martian refineries. It’s in the same territory as Oren Ambarchi or Expo ’70s work, all waves and getting-too-close eruptions of sound. But it’s not just head-nodding – there’s the additional feeling of truncated beats, as if heavy ’70s prog were shaped to fit a raster-noton release.

‘Sweat Raag’ continues the earthy, unsettled feeling. The track sounds build on a cello-like tone, again monstered from the back tows by a hum of electricity, a hovering drone. There’s the same broken-contact feeling as the initial tone blurs and warps into the sound of electricity, angered at the bonds of cabling. Is it feedback or an actual instrument? Whichever, it’s chunky and analogue, the satisfying complaint of a plug not snug in its home.

The track moves slowly, steadily towards the light until, a third through, a buzzy, busy sound (akin to a melodica or harmonium) comes through. It’s a Carnatic contender against the large-fisted drone, and becomes more insistent as the track moves, by turns sinuous and deadly, as if charming electronic snakes. The ear’s inability to discern actual instruments – was that a clarinet? – places the listener delightfully off balance a very vocal line swoops against itself, like Narcissus and his own reflection. Until, that is, the track becomes a riot of either buzzsaws or traffic noises, like a Tzadik album abandoned by a freeway, left to bum its way to Masada.

Until, of course, the drums come in. A spasmodic tribute to McColm’s years of study with Billy Hart (of Pharoah Sanders fame), they’re funky as hell, all whipping arms, machinelike snare rolls and a flurry of cymbals. It’s a great moment, but contrasted with what’s come before, it seems a little too… definitive? It certainly undercuts the organic mystery we’ve been hearing thus far.

The album closes with ‘Continuous Becoming’, an extended drone meditation which seriously distorts one’s perception of time. It’s a rootless, deeply Klaus Schulze-sounding piece, though without such fripperies as melody – instead there’s just some kind of phasing between positions.

(Also, it perversely rides the listener’s this-is-music-whoops-now-tinnitus boundaries.)

Time seems to pass without affecting the listener. Guitars play in the background. Cities fall. Echoes are adjusted. Everything leaks into one sound, the only constant being a sense of undulation. Everything is shifting, pushing into your ears, your body. It’s enveloping in the same way hypothermia convinces you you’re fine just before you freeze to death. A pernicious warmth flows out – soporific yet undoubtedly malicious.

The track’s end feels more like a loss of listener focus than of finale. The satellite has flown beyond reach of our instruments, and presumably the song continues until the heat death of the universe – we just lack the ability to hear it.

This album definitely has more than just a whiff of restless ’70s attitude. I’m reminded most of Popul Vuh, the way that band straddled both the era’s motorik technologism and its desire for the earthy, the ritual, the authentic. Nagual’s first LP has some seriously In Den Gärten Pharaos moments, but where Florian Fricke was a water-baby hippy at heart, McColm and Shapiro are more than happy to hold you under the bath’s surface.



About Author

A curmudgeon, writer and sometime musician. He has played Japanese drums in Japan, guitar badly in Australia and will never be as cool as Keiji Haino. (But then, who is?)