Origenes y Destinos by The Luis D’Elias Ensemble – a lush soundscape of profound musicality

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A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by young NYC-based guitar player and composer Luis D’Elias. He had read and enjoyed my interview with Sofia Rei and resonated with The Music and Myth’s approach to music as storytelling. He asked if he could send me his ensemble’s debut record, Origenes y Destinos for review. I’m always excited to hear new music, especially from young or debuting composers, so I was looking forward to playing the record. I didn’t make any promises for a review, however, since I only write about the records I truly find engaging. I thought I’d play it while cleaning up my office.

About thirty seconds in, I was back at my computer writing to Luis, telling him to expect an article soon. That is how captivating this band’s music is from the very first notes. The Ensemble consists of composer/guitarist Luis D’Elias, pianist and composer Evan Waaramaa (credited with writing two of the record’s ten tracks), Josh Plotner on sax (and other instruments), P.J Duffy on bass (electric and acoustic) and Brendan Pajak on drums. Various collaborators, including vocalists Lizje Sarria and Marianella Rojas, contribute their talent to create an album of fascinatingly dynamic diversity. The compositions sound forceful and fresh, but are also amazingly polished for a debut work.

“Vietos del Dur” starts with a soft guitar, the feel of which took me back to Brill Frisell’s first chords on John Zorn’s The Mysteries. Then, about thirty seconds in, something extraordinary happens: the listener is met by the melody of a spellbinding violin, courtesy of guest collaborator Stefano Melillo, and invited into a lush soundscape of profound musicality, where various instruments are ebbing and flowing through a variety of sounds of Venezuelan influence as they take turns surpassing each other in playfulness.

Everything comes together perfectly in this opening track which immediately establishes the band as a highly skilled and imaginative group of musician and Berklee schooled composer D’Elias as a careful storyteller, whose understanding of musical rhetoric belies his young age. It’s a truly superb and well-chosen opening track that sets the bar very high for the rest of the record. Unfortunately, it’s just a bit too high for the following song “Noches de Lluvia” which, in spite of some very entertaining solos, feels rather generic and falls short of maintaining the incredible magnetism established by the first track.

At this point I have to express the one small criticism I can bring the record throughout. In a move indicative of their youth, the clearly gifted players sometimes focus just a bit too much on showcasing their virtuosity and do so at the expense of the overall musical cadence and narrative cohesion (think Al Di Meola’s first few records). However, this minor setback does not affect the overall enjoyment of the record and is entirely expected from a band at this early stage in its musical journey. In fact, this reminds me of a particular review I received for my debut novel, Mindguard, where a reader stated: “Much of the writing displays that wordy, needlessly complex over-eagerness common to debut writers”. This is a homologous situation.

The flow is quickly reestablished with the enchanting “Onda” (The Wave), a splendid track benefitting from expert vocals courtesy of Lizje Sarria. The Colombian musician brings a touch of jazz and helps shape a highly addictive track which could comfortably linger in the Top 40s in various countries and genres, and likely will. The dynamic of the track is exceptional, with Sarria’s spot-on vocals transitioning from pensive and surreal to sexy and effervescent with great ease. In fact, I am very impressed with this singer’s delivery, so expect to see more of her in The Music and Myth in the future. The band does a great job of shadowing the mesmerizing vocals. Nowhere is their chemistry more evident than on this track. If I were them, “Onda” is the song I would use to promote the record.

Next off is “Dance, you’re on TV” a fun composition by pianist Evan Waaramaa, notable especially for its high-energy playing and a groovy saxophone solo courtesy of Aaron Gratzmiller. “Descendant”, another Waaramaa composition, softens the tempo with its laid-back surfer groove, a well-timed change of pace that demonstrates skilled track placement (a quality that is lamentably rare even in the work of seasoned musicians).

In fact, D’Elias stated in the press release: “The main aesthetic that the album tries to capture is that of a story about music itself. It’s about my own musical origins and where those can go as they interweave with everything I learn and everyone I meet.” This anecdotal approach is evident both in the compositions themselves as well as their placement in the body of work, as the record unveils its deepest layers in extended start-to-finish listening sessions.

“Merengue Pa’l Camino” and “Curiara al Mar” at times fall into the same trap as “Noches de Lluvia”, but are both “saved” by extremely careful timing. In case of the former, Melillo’s violin enriches the track in a way that just cannot be overstated while the latter benefits from smooth-sounding bass and drum solos that invite the listener to hit “repeat”.

Next off is the title track, in my opinion the highlight of the record. It starts off with D’Elias’ guitar accompanying the delicate, youthful voice of Marianella Rojas, who sings (originally in Spanish):

The road, without your steps, is no road

The days don’t begin if your eyes are closed

The future doesn’t lie in the past

But you can’t get there if you don’t see how much you’ve walked

Every road has to begin with just one step

Victory is most appreciated when you know you’ve fought

And hope is never lost

If you believe in yourself

Wherever you’ll go

You’ll soon find out*

*translation provided by the composer

This gorgeous introduction, that lasts about two minutes, is absolutely fantastic. I played it about five times before I even moved on to the rest of the track. I couldn’t help but think how good it would have sounded as the theme for season two of True Detective, instead of Cohen’s humdrum spoken-word snoozer. After the powerful intro, the song blossoms into a joyful folk dance, then takes the listener through a series of thoroughly enjoyable, sometimes overlapping solos before coming full circle with a vocal epilogue. A splendidly crafted track and a nice sample of Nella Rojas’ talent.

Intensity increases with “Tiembla Tierra I” and Pajak’s ominous drums that dictate a more aggressive pace and foretell the powerful ending with Venezuelan protesters screaming their disgruntlement as the track breaks down into pure rock. “Tiembla Tierra II” picks up where its predecessor left off. It’s a powerful and unexpected ending, with chants of “The earthy is trembling!” whose intensity and sequential relevance remind me of the ending to 2004’s Macadam by Romanian funk band Blazzaj, a similar record in scope, if not in sound.

With an extremely fortunate combination of talent, intelligence and exceptional musical education, The Luis D’Elias Ensemble have created a true work of culture. In Origenes y Destinos, the band has a debut record that receives a standing ovation from The Muisc and Myth!

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How Big How Blue How Beautiful – a good record made exceptional within the larger context of the band’s evolution

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On June 17th, while my wife and I were vacationing in lovely Sicily, The Music and Myth quietly turned three years old. I say “quietly” because I usually have an article up, wishing my oldest writing venture a happy birthday. Since that wasn’t possible this year, I chose to commemorate the special date with a belated birthday article.

Florence + the Machine’s Lungs was the first record I ever reviewed for The Music and Myth. I thought this would be a proper occasion to write something about the band’s third installment, How Big How Blue How Beautiful. The newly released studio album follows the elegant Ceremonials and attempts to do the right thing from a creative standpoint by pursuing a completely new musical direction. But is it the right one? Until very recently I would have said no.

With Ceremonials and the subsequent single “Breath of Life” the band has completely exhausted the creative territory of “big choirs and massive orchestration”. Any attempt to continue in the same vein or try to surpass “Breath of Life” – in my opinion the band’s most powerful song to date, with its heavy theme, booming percussion and sixty-piece choir – would most likely have been destined for failure. But it was exactly this song’s magnificent execution that made the follow up, “What Kind of Man”, feel like a disappointment. Hearing Florence Welch sing about “complicated” relationships just felt like a step backwards, in spite of the song’s catchy, straight-up rock vibe. It just didn’t feel like something Florence and the band should be doing in 2015 but more like a track that belonged either before Lungs or somewhere in between the debut and sophomore releases. The fact that it was chosen as the first promotional single did not predict good things and I had low expectations for the record to begin with. Fortunately, there was ample room to be pleasantly surprised.

I still feel that both this track and “Ship to Wreck” were poor choices for promotional singles because the record has so much more to offer than these two songs would suggest. They are also used as opening tracks with the former following the latter. Initially, it felt like a bad omen for this new project to open with the words, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head” and continue through a typical Welchian dreamscape of “great white sharks swimming in the bed” and “red-eyed mice scratching at the door” only to reach the hackneyed indecision: “Did I drink too much, am I losing touch, did I build this ship to wreck”. Catchy as the lyrics and riffs may be, it still felt like a considerable narrowing of the pensive scope, especially since Ceremonials opened with “Only if for a Night and “Shake it Out” and followed those up with “What the Water Gave Me”.

On the latest record, the so-so openers are followed by the title track, the first to hint that there might be more to this album than meets the ear. Indeed, the record seems to be the lead singer’s most personal endeavor to date, an almost confrontational recount of exhaustion, heartbreak and emotional turbulence. That makes it perhaps the most honest of the albums, but also the least accessible to new listeners.

The expansive orchestration of Ceremonials is replaced with a raw dynamic of straightforward rock aided by a powerful brass section to help maintain the band’s distinctive touch of melodrama. This new approach of favoring horns over harp makes for a record with a well-defined identity.

“The Queen of Peace” is the first truly great track on the new album. An emphatic, unrestrained stomper with a particularly memorable chorus, the song firmly establishes the record’s musical theme of coupling woeful lyrics with an upbeat rhythm to create a fascinating contrast. “The Queen of Peace” feels like a turning point for the story of HBHBHB and is also the place where the record reaches its full potential. From this point forward, almost all the songs sound like they might be found on Greatest Hits collections forty years from now.

The outstanding “Various Storms & Saints” is a rare ballad where the vocalist – usually known for her imaginative falsettos screamed at full lung capacity – delivers a polished performance that would satisfy the most demanding classically-trained melodist. Over a haunting string section, Florence Welch sings:

The monument of a memory

You tear it down in your head

Don’t make the mountain your enemy

Get out, get up there instead

You saw the stars out in front of you

Too tempting not to touch

But even though it shocked you

Something’s electric in your blood

Her voice expertly transitions from soft and subdued to vigorous and cathartic and ultimately becomes a veritable siren’s song, shaping a simple musical arrangement into one of the best songs not only on this set, but in the band’s entire repertoire. The clap-happy gothgospel “Delilah” picks up the pace with Biblical references and a Sturm und Drang dynamic, while Welch, ever the extrovert, keeps exploring new vocal avenues. The bluesy “Long & Lost” is effective in its simplicity while “Caught” and “Third Eye” alternate between tender melancholy and shouty groove, creating a skillfully paced musical narrative that lends itself well to repeated listening.

The record slows down a bit with “St Jude” an undistinguished ballad which, in spite of good lyrics, feels more like an interlude than an actual song. However, it recovers with “Mother”, a spectacular closing track and veritable rock anthem where the songwriter returns to the phantasmagorical imagery she is known for:

Mother, make me

Make me a big tall tree

So I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me

Mother, make me

Make me a big grey cloud

So I can rain on you things I can’t say out loud

This song is executed to perfection, as the band summons up a wild energy to match the ferocity of Florence’s voice. If the closing track feels somewhat different from the rest that might have something to do with the fact that it was the only song produced by Paul Epworth. It sounds almost like the first chapter of a new story. If “Mother” is a sign of things to come, then Florence + The Machine has a bright future and a solid position in the indie rock scene.

With profoundly personal lyrics telling of failed relationships, almost debilitating vices and emotional aimlessness, How Big How Blue How Beautiful is definitely an acquired taste. It’s certainly a powerful album, but it doesn’t have the instant charm of Lungs and Ceremonials. However, it makes up for that with a disarmingly honest narrative that will almost certainly help cement the record’s legacy over time. It’s a work best understood by people who are already familiar with Florence Welch’s songwriting and cognizant of the context of the lead vocalist’s creative and personal journey at this point in time. Seen in context, even the less-stellar songs like “What Kind of Man” and “Ship to Wreck” possess a certain depth that might evade the neophyte. For the new listener, How Big How Blue How Beautiful might be a skillfully crafted indie rock album that takes a little warming up to, but for the knowledgeable Florence + The Machine enthusiast, the band’s latest work is nothing less than exceptional.