Lucid Culture


CD Review: 17 Pygmies – Celestina

[editor’s note: this being Halloween, it’s only appropriate that we’d review the most haunting cd of the year]


17 Pygmies’ new cd Celestina is a concept album, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. It’s a lush, beautiful, absolutely haunting, mostly instrumental art-rock masterpiece, without a doubt one of the most gripping albums released this year. Celestina is symphonic in the purest sense of the word, a theme and variations that twist and turn and recur throughout. Its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. The narrative traced by the tracks – simply titled Celestina I through XI – is discernable from the start, and it’s not pretty, despite the music’s glimmering grandeur.


It opens with the introduction of a disarmingly simple, gently menacing, Middle Eastern-inflected central theme, ambient and atmospheric with washes of strings, perhaps created by a guitar synthesizer pedal. The next movement, bracing and stately with reverb-and-delay guitar, is a dead ringer for legendary Australian art-rockers the Church circa Priest Equals Aura, singer/bassist Meg Maryatt’s disembodied, ethereal vocals perfectly capturing the mood. “Feels like heaven,” she sings, but the unease in her voice is visceral. Celestina III builds the instrumental theme introduced in II with lush washes of strings, getting gentle and really pretty at the end yet without losing its menacing undercurrent  


In Celestina IV, a new theme is introduced with octaves in the bass. “What’s that sound?” Maryatt asks, her voice processed to a horror-movie timbre.The album’s centerpiece is its turning point, a murky, reverberating twelve-minute feedback instrumental evocative of Yo La Tengo at their most thoughtful or a quieter Savage Republic tune.  It’s absolutely evil, the guitars’ low resonances phasing in and out for minutes on end until the bassline making a tentative entrance, pushing the melody around, finally grabbing it by the throat and thrashing it around with methodical, deadly force. Throat-singing over the low-register roar adds yet another layer of sinister overtones. At the end, the drums stomp on it a couple of times just to make sure it’s dead.


The next cut is a big, anguished, puzzled ballad with stellar vocals again from Maryatt: it’s something of a cross between a macabre DollHouse anthem and a standout cut from Priest Equals Aura. In VII, reverting to classical mode, the initial theme returns, mingling with its counterpart from II, taking on an altogether different meaning. At the end, bells toll quietly in the background. A fight scene ensues, a quietly anguished cry in a vacuum followed by a long noise jam, the instruments locked in a battle to the death, ending with the same long series of distant wails that began it. When the main theme recurs again, the arrangement is more ethereal and far darker, making it clear that the whole idea of this relationship was disastrous from the start. Closing the suite, loops of tinkling electric piano contrast with a wobbly wash of synth, building to a haunting, darkly nebulous constellation of strings. The cd ends on a surprisingly anticlimactic note, just the guitar playing simple arpeggios with an 80s chorus-box feel.


As with all of 17 Pygmies Trakwerx albums, the cd is beautifully packaged in an artsy, cleverly handmade cardboard sleeve and insert. Available at cdbaby dirt-cheap for thirteen lucky bucks. You’ll see this in the top five or so best albums of the year when we publish the list in December.

October 31, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Got the cd and it is a celestial rock! Haunting melodies keep playing in my memory long after the cd is done.

    Comment by georgia taco belle | November 4, 2008 | Reply

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