Review Summary: The latest addition to The Book of Truth is another feather in Secret Chiefs 3's cap.
Secret Chiefs 3 are one of the more aptly named bands I have encountered. Although their name is probably more a reflection of composer/guitarist/mastermind Trey Spruance’s penchant for all things occult and esoteric, it is very easy to see the band as a transcendent cosmic authority of the musical realm, residing on a higher plane where their bizarre mix of sounds and styles is perhaps a little less otherworldly. The point is, these guys are right at the forefront of modern avant garde, both in terms of creativity and success. Maybe it’s because half their core lineup used to play with Mr. Bungle, or maybe because of their work with established experimental genius John Zorn, or maybe just because their music is often surprisingly appealing as well as disarmingly different. In any case, Secret Chiefs 3 is an intriguing project, and their latest offering, Book of Souls: Folio A
, shows that they are still very much a force to be reckoned with.
Book of Souls: Folio A
(henceforth, Folio A) is the sequel to 2004’s Book of Horizions
and is therefore in the unenviable position of having to follow up the album generally agreed to be the band’s finest. The complicated use of ‘satellite bands’ (from Book of Horizons
onwards, SC3 tend to operate through seven mini-bands, each of which captures a certain aspect of their sound; for an explanation of each of these bands, scroll to the bottom of the review) is maintained here, but is slightly less confusing because Folio A
only uses five of these mini-bands. Also, since every other song is an interlude of up to two minutes that is not attributed to any specific branch of SC3, there are only seven full songs here. This makes Folio A
somewhat easier to grasp than Book of Horizons
, which occasionally came across as sprawling thanks to its twelve non-interlude songs, many of which were packed full of various ideas and hard to absorb. The interludes are generally interesting and unpredictable and bulk the album up in a manner that avoids coming across as filler, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. This extension to its runtime is a benefit to Folio A
, since its low number of full tracks would otherwise put it at risk of being overly concise and therefore unrewarding. As it is, the listener is left with the impression that more is to come (Folio B
will hopefully be released in the not-too-distant future), but there is enough substance here to make it a satisfying album for the time being.
Book of Horizons
featured stellar performances from all the satellite bands involved (that is to say, all of them except NT Fan), but three of them stood out in particular, and the roles of these bands are a helpful way to consider Folio A
. Firstly, and most distinctively, is Holy Vehm. Exterminating Angel
and Hypostasis of the Archons
were hair-raisingly brutal and contained approximately 90% of the album’s heaviness. Whilst they were both excellent songs, they stood out like sore thumbs amidst the comparative calmness of the other tracks. In the absence of any Holy Vehm tracks on Folio A
, Spruance spread the concentration of crushing guitar-driven metal more evenly over the whole album and dramatically increased the amount of distortion in certain moments of many songs. The best example of this is the dynamic Potestas Clavium
(the ever unpredictable Electromagnetic Azoth’s contribution to the album), which playfully supports its recurring motifs with Spruance’s menacing guitar. Ishraqiyun’s offerings also have notably more bite than their Horizons
counterparts, and the interludes employ distortion liberally. In my opinion, this both makes a the overall atmosphere of the album more coherent, since Spruance’s penchant for brutality isn’t as out of place as it was on Horizons
, and makes individual songs more eclectic and fun.
The second standout of Horizons
, and my personal favourite contribution, was FORMS. The End Times
and Welcome to the Theatron Animatronique
were a superb opener/closer pairing, and The Owl in Daylight
was a standout of the album’s central section. However, instead of holding Folio A
together like Horizons
, FORMS are assigned to Folio A’s
centrepiece, Scorched Earth Saturnalia
. This seven minute labyrinth of a track is the most confusing, sporadic piece to be found here and, whilst it is undoubtedly a fascinating listen from start to finish, it doesn’t define the album in quite the same way that The End Times’
beautiful repetition or The Owl in Daylight’s
moving themes defined Horizons
. Instead of FORMS, the task of bookending the album is given to Ishraqiyun. The opener Balance of the 19
revolves around its fusion of a dark Eastern theme with a jarring, off-kilter rhythm that is eventually embellished with gargantuanally heavy guitar accompaniment, and it works pretty well as a way into Folio A
, although the variation isn’t quite as dramatic as it is elsewhere and the guitar’s entry is the only real surprise. On the other hand, Tistrya
begins with a melodic klezmer melody that made me smile wistfully and recall John Zorn’s The Circle Maker
. Not for long. This melody is cut up, manipulated, distorted and spread all across the song in various forms. The song is unpredictable but coherent, thanks to its basis on a single motif, and seems to end just when it has burnt itself out, giving Folio A
an incendiary yet satisfying conclusion. Whilst these two pieces do not share motifs in the same way that Horizons’
bookends did, they still resemble each other enough to provide an identifiable beginning and end and frame the album in a manner that presents it as a coherent whole.
The final standout of Horizons
was UR, most notably for the oddly groovy, futuristic powerhouse that came almost at the end of the album in the form of Anthropomorphis: Boxleitner
. The dark, immersive intrigue of this song is carried onto UR’s two offering on Folio A
; both Personae: Halloween
are just as addictive as Anthropomorphis
, and since the atmosphere invoked in them has much in common with some sections of Potestas Clavium
, they define a significant part of Folio A
. However, because of this they don’t distinguish themselves in quite the same way that Anthropomorphis
did; they are cohesive parts of a whole rather than a huge standout that showed up when its album seemed to have run out of tricks to play.
Special mention must be given to the true showstopper of Folio A
. Whilst Scorched Earth Saturnalia
is the weirdest, most sporadic piece, it is part of an album that thrives on such traits – the most surprising song here is easily the Jacques Brel cover, La Chanson de Jacky
. Alongside the fact that it is the only song on the album with either vocals or lyrics, the feeling of accelerated waltz gives the song a gallivanting pace that sets it apart from everything else here by a mile. However, unlike the Holy Vehm songs on Horizons
, La Chanson de Jacky
is a welcome change in tone rather than a confusing volte face; its use of traditional instrumentation in an orthodox manner (a feature that is lacking on Folio A
) pleasantly recalls much of Horizons
, the lyrical narrative is supported magnificently by the music and is probably the most fun, accessible point on the album, and its unexpected inclusion is a reminder that Secret Chiefs 3 are just as prepared to screw with their listener between songs as they are within songs.
So, to summarise: Book of Souls: Folio A
is another fascinating chapter (forgive the pun) from a fascinating band. It isn't as expansive or satisfying as its predecessor, Book of Horizons
, although it will be very interesting to see how hearing it back to back with Folio B
changes this, but it is a more digestible offering from a band determined to fuse as many different styles as they can into listenable goodness. Recommended to any fan of experimental or instrumental music.
FORMS: A funereal folk band, beautiful, often dark, atmospheres.
Ishraqiyun: The most Eastern-influenced SC3 outlet. Their songs are generally microtonal and based on complex mathematical systems.
Traditionalists: As the name implies, this branch of SC3 is focused on traditional sounding film-esque music. A crude description would be an upbeat version of FORMS.
The Electromagnetic Azoth: The most confusing project – they are unpredictable and wildly eclectic. They utilise a broad range of instruments and sounds.
UR: A more Western fusion of genres, still a good deal of Eastern influence to be found. Their sound is more futuristic, atmospheric and – moreso than the other subbands – hooky and cool.
Holy Vehm: Eastern-tinged death metal. They have no songs on Folio A, but can be found on Book of Horizons.
NT Fan: noise and electroacoustic. Has yet to be heard on any SC3 full-length.