I’m not quite sure why I didn’t rave about Black String’s debut album Mask Dance when it came out in 2017. Listening to Karma, their follow-up studio album on ACT records due to be released on 27 September 2019, I’m finding it compelling listening. And returning to Mask Dance now I’m seeing it in a new light and wondering why I pretty much ignored it at the time (until it won won the Asia and Pacific category Songlines Magazine Music Award last year).
Karma grabs your attention from the very opening bars of the first track, with Heo Yoon-jeong’s geomungo setting up a lilting 8+7 beats in a bar as Hwang Min-wang’s janggu gently taps a rhythm with Jean Oh’s guitar respectfully commenting in the background, before Lee Aram’s flute enters to take up the melody. The recording is spacious, giving the instruments plenty of room to breathe, and as the volume gradually swells, with the percussion becoming increasingly bhangra-tinged, you know you’re in for an interesting ride for the rest of the album.
Karma spans a number of styles, from Korean folk to jazz via something more Middle Eastern or Indian. The second track, Hanging Gardens of Bablyon, has yanggeum and taepyeongso sounding uncharacteristically Mesopotamian, while the tuning temperament in the opening bars of the third track, Elevation of Light, sounds like it was picked up somewhere along the Silk Road. Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê guests on this track plus Song of the Sea, which includes some plaintive vocals from percussionist Hwang Min-wang.
Some of the music is also rock-influenced, and the fifth track, Exit Music (For A Film), is an interesting cover version of a track from Radiohead’s OK Computer. The propulsive, lively pansori-style singing in Exhale-Puri is contrasted with the mysteriously hypnotic sounds in the title track Karma. We are back in a more traditional Korean soundworld for Beating Road, until, around three quarters of the way through, the guitar emerges through the texture to take the track in a completely different, rock-infused direction. To close the disc, Blue Shade again opens mysteriously, with low guitar notes sounding like a distant ship’s foghorn which gradually gets louder and more raucous as the flute plays blue notes over the top. Here the rhythms are so complex that I can’t figure out how many beats in a bar there are. But it doesn’t matter: you just go with the flow.
Altogether this is an exciting, well-balanced release which places Black String alongside Jambinai as the standard-bearers of a movement that is bringing traditional Korean instruments and rhythms into a fruitful dialogue with international styles and winning new audiences. Good as the recording is, this is an album that cries out to be heard live. One hopes that many of the tracks will be featured in Black String’s gig on 18 November 2019 at the Purcell Room – a concert that features in the London Jazz Festival lineup as well as being the closing gig of K-music 2019. Don’t miss it.
Thanks to ACT Records for the unsolicited and unexpected review copy which was gratefully received.