Let’s talk about music reviews for a bit.
Like most of pop culture (or culture in general), reviews have become a part of the creative process that you just can’t ignore. Reviews act as many things for art and music: they’re guides for potential consumers, they expand upon and add to conversations, and they are a way for artists and admirers to orient themselves in an increasingly busy and diverse sphere of creation.
Lately though, reviews have also become somewhat insular.
This is related directly to the how the internet is structured. Forums and pages and sites have sort of become gathering places; or nodes where people with similar interests connect. Or so it is assumed. And because of this assumption, all of these places have developed their own sub-languages, their own vocabularies that the communities use to speak to each other.
That’s great. Having your own jargon creates a sense of belongingness. It’s what communities are built on. But having an us can’t help but also create a them. People who are unfamiliar with the jargon feel alienated by these online communities. Those who are new to a particular genre or a medium of art feel like that world is already full, and it’s not welcoming visitors. Communities stay strong by making it difficult for ‘outsiders’ to enter.
But it’s those outsiders who can actually make communities more powerful. They can become vocal members, add new ideas, challenge conventions. And outsiders can only be welcomed if the community makes an effort to be open to them, to communicate with them.
I am an author, not a musician. And this review (and any others, if I get to turn Impressions of Music into a series) is a way for me to open up channels of communication to people who don’t identify as members of the musical community (whether as fans, or musicians, or critics). I picked Jazz as my preferred genre to review because it is probably one of the most insular musical communities out there. As a result, it often gets left out of conversations that it could benefit from becoming a part of.
I’ll be following a few rules throughout this review. I will not be using any technical terms. I will not be referring to any previous music from this genre. I will not be talking about the background of the artists, even if I admire them very much.
The goal is to judge the music in isolation. To think about it as a first time listener. To focus on what kind of imagery, and most importantly, what kind of emotions the music evokes when you listen to it. Music is one of those forms of art that are supposed to be truly universal. I aim to honor that particular strength of the form with my review.
Like the title mentions, this review will focus on the album Who Sent You? by a group called Irreversible Entanglements. You can stream the full album completely legally here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoPfj_PosTg
I request you to listen along as you read the impressions I got while listening to the five tracks on the album.
Let’s start, shall we?
1. The Code Noir/Amina: The bass notes start bold, stoking anticipation. Little splashing sounds from the cymbals accompany them. Together they form a sort of pavement of sound. Imagine it is night in a city. It’s just finished drizzling. There are little pools of rainwater everywhere. And you’re walking carefully along the street, trying to avoid those pools.
The ‘you’ in this scenario is the saxophone. The boldest sound so far. The clear figure; standing against the background of the bass and drums. Your stride is uneven, sometimes taking two or three steps at once, then stopping, and then starting again. The bass and the drums become more complex as you go on. The background comes into sharper focus. You walk along buildings that are like something about of a Munch painting. Dark, angular, sloping and beautiful.
And that’s when the voice enters.
It’s like your inner monologue, sentences your mind is throwing at you. The saxophone becomes louder. Your pulse has gotten faster. The pavement seems to be generating a speed of its own, like a treadmill. As you walk more quickly, it feels like the landscape behind you is giving you chase.
The voice speaks out again. It seems to be talking about your past. What you left behind before showing up in this city. It keeps speaking. It talks about the history of your land, and your anxieties. It tells you how forgetting that history has left you helpless, has made you ignore heroes, and the blindness to the past leads to a future full of repeated tortures.
The voice now throws questions at you like spears. It demands that you wake up. You, the saxophone, have become frantic. Your stride has become wild, erratic, but you can’t escape the voice. You can’t escape it because you know it is right.
You have almost become one with the background now. The drums, the bass, the saxophone-everything now moves with the same energy. The same restlessness. You feel closer to this city that you started your journey in, and maybe feel a stronger connection to the land itself.
2. Who sent you—ritual: Unlike the first track, this one starts off with a fanfare. The sounds are chaotic, sizeable explosions all around you. They are implacable, as is the voice. It has become more forceful, sounding almost paranoid as it takes the tone of an interrogator. Or is it trying to remind you of something? Is it trying to draw attention to some deeply buried fact, buried under years of repetition?
Relentless; the cacophony does not let up. The voice goes on. It now asks questions that sound simultaneously universal and specific. Who sent you? What are you doing here? Are these questions that you’ve heard from cops when returning home late at night? Are these questions that African Americans have to have answers ready for at all hours? Did they tell you how long you’re supposed to stay here? What are you doing here?
The music and voice compete against each other now. But they both want the same thing: to question, to cause alarm, to remind.
Just when it all seems unbearable, the mad rush of sound seems to wind down. What are you doing here? The voice turns into a whisper: concerned, urgent.
But it regains strength in a few seconds. It does not foretell doom. It tells us that doom is here, almost here, two inches from our faces. The music strains against itself, squeaking, jarring, panicking.
And then it all slows down again, exhausted.
3. No Más: Slow, sluggish beats lead us into the next track. They build up tension, head toward something. The sax rises and falls like streams of smoke. The drums rattle like a windowpane while a truck passes by on the road.
A strange desolation seems to surround us. We have left the chaotic cityscape behind. We’re somewhere a little more ancient now, barer, something akin to a desert.
The voice, once again, matches the soundscape. It waxes nostalgic. It remembers what it was like to experience freedom. Before the weight of history bore down on it. The beats now sound more ritualistic, like something you’d hear around a raging wood-fire as shamans told stories.
Little rattles and tings join the beats. The voice repeats the same word over and over, chant-like. Listening, you fall into a sort of happy meditation.
The familiar instruments re-enter. They share the elation, the saxophone flapping like a flag in a light wind. The drums sound a little discordant, and chaotic compared to the rest of the sonics. The bass is much more confident, almost dancing ahead with bold, clear steps. The voice encourages it, speaking of the possibilities that lay ahead. It recites a beautiful line: I know we are more than circles. It’s at this point that the album’s complex relationship with history becomes clearer. There are different versions of history-ones written by the oppressors, and ones written by the once-free. History can try to put us in boxes both visible and invisible, it can also tell us how to fight back, how to wrestle back the right to define ourselves. No Más, the voice says, No More. No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer.
4. Blues Ideology: The bass notes are elongated, stretched, almost sarcastic. The voice speaks, and we understand that it’s not sarcasm but intoxication: The voice also sounds a little drunk, the bitterness of her tone reflecting the pale bitter aftertaste left on the back of the tongue by stale beer. The voice mumbles as it says mumbling.
The voice becomes sharper, more distinct, and we understand that it is hurling insults at religion. Maybe at the creator himself. It speaks of religion’s mad urge to define roles for humanity. The music stumbles drunkenly along. Everything sounds cluttered and rickety. It’s difficult not to see the music as a commentary on the near-obsolescence of the machinery of organized religion. The voice, shouting on about power, lies and faith cements that image in the mind. Drunk, the voice repeats, perhaps speaking of the wine of power that is favored by the oppressors. The trumpet whines incessantly, passionate, demanding attention.
5. Bread out of Stone: We embark on the final track with a bit of trepidation. The drums emulate a metallic knocking, as if they were striking against prison bars. The voice speaks of history once again, of rituals and freedom. Of how to use tradition to make our lives new. The mood is contemplative, anticipatory.
This brief, low-key piece closes the album, implicitly encouraging us to hold on to that mood of contemplation.
Overall, I felt this album was very sure of itself. It paints bold pictures and does not mince words. The music is bold and big, the message timely and clear. It’s not something you relax to. It feels like revolution music, protest music.
I wonder how it’ll sound the next time around.