I have to confess that at age 17, it perhaps took me longer than it should have done to realise just how extraordinary marine life really is. Let us consider the humble sponge. Biologists now tell us that the earliest multicellular animal fossil is that of a type of sponge, which is literally billions of years old. That's diverting in its own way, but what's of rather greater interest to me is how phenomenal sponges are at absorbing all sorts of liquids. At a visceral level, it's fundamentally cool to be able to squeeze water into something, and then squeeze it all out, drop by drop. What does this have to do with Shpongle? Most obviously, the words 'sponge' and 'shpongle' are pretty similar. However, like the sponge, Shpongle have an oddly absorbent quality to them. Although they're a psytrance band, and therefore have their musical roots in trance music, this is nothing like any trance album you've ever heard before. Absorbing a wide range of different musical styles, this album has flutes, ambient passages, all sorts of world music, and a brilliant variety of vocals throughout. Oh yeah, and if you like psychedelic music, you may well love this. Shpongle released what is believed to have been their final album earlier this year, and is probably one of the best releases of 2005. Given that I'm firmly of the opinion that this is the best year for music of the decade so far, it says something that I'd place this clearly above Nothing Lasts... But Nothing Is Lost
, and do so without a moment's hesitation.
The first thing to note about the album is the manner in which it passes. For a start, it's long, at just under 70 minutes. However, extending the marine motif for a minute, it's an immensely fluid listen, with the music really washing over the listener if you give it the chance to. There's also a lot going on here, and by that I mean that no matter how many times you listen to this, you can always find something new to appreciate every time you give it a spin. Take opening track Dorset Perception
. The backing for Michelle Adamson's vocals is fundamentally a repetitive beat, but the combination of guitars and what sounds distinctly like a xylophone in a background constantly shift the mood of the song, before a strangely appropriate funky interlude about 6 minutes in. Many people presented with some 70 minute 'psytrance' record would be intimidated by it, fearing a festival of some of the most boring music known to man. Honest to God, with this album they couldn't be further from the truth.
More examples? Just look at the very next track, StarShpongled Banner
. Opening with vocal samples, it sounds initially like the best song that Pink Floyd never quite got round to recording. By the time you're 2 minutes in, the bass riff has combined with gentle experiments on the keyboards and Raja Ram's flute to create a song so deeply soothing that it makes your mother singing a lullaby sound like two cats being thrown around in a dustbin. But then it changes. Moving away from the elegiac opening of the song, the rhythm behind it builds and builds, creating a song that takes on a life of its own, becoming a positive monster. Just like that, it's gone from being a soft flute-based composition into being a pounding giant, which sounds like it would be most at home being pumped out of the loudest sound system you could find in the middle of a cooling desert as the sun went down. Just to prove a point, the song actually ends with what always seems like a football crowd doing a gospel choir based aerobic workout, although by then you've already realised the truth; that Shpongle are capable of throwing a huge range of influences into the blender, and getting a deliciously flavoured result at the end. And they do that on every song on this album, without exception.
It's not always a comfortable listen. The opening 80.5 seconds of Room 23c
where heavily distorted vocals fade in and out over a pseudo-industrial backing have made me break into a cold sweat before, such is the thumping style of the music. But after those 80.5 seconds you've got the tribal influences at their most apparent, with a choir singing over layered flutes, as the music meanders off into the distance again, leaving the listener with an imperceptible urge to dance. Although this record is very different to a lot of music which people think of as 'dance music', it is indeed eminently danceable. Although that's very clear after even a few listens, it's a point worth labouring. In spite of the fact that there is always so much going on in the music, there are very few moments on Tales Of The Inexpressible
which you can't see yourself dancing to in some way, shape or form.
My Head Feels Like A Frisbee
is an exceptionally good example of this. Opening with vocals which sound like they're coming through the filter of an LSD trip, a fully fledged brass section makes a first appearance on the album, adding yet another musical style to an album already overflowing with diversity. Of course, this brass section doesn't hang around for the length of the song (that goes without saying, right?), but its reappearances inject new life back into the song whenever it seems like it may start lagging, epitomising a key strength of the album.
More so than pretty much any other album I own, Tales Of The Inexpressible
seems incredibly alive. If you'd excuse me a stunningly bad pun that I feel obligated to make, it seems inexpressibly
so. My Head Feels Like A Frisbee
provides particularly strong evidence of this, thanks to its salsa influences, but the whole album positively exudes life at every moment. As already stated, there are a massive amount of influences throughout the album. Indeed, if you were one of these politically correct people (and a complete idiot) the entire thing could be seen as a remarkably strong argument for multiculturalism. Shpongleyes
wouldn't be the same without the chillingly Gothic introduction, and it's difficult to envisage Once Upon The Sea Of Blissful Awareness
without the Scandinavian sounding waves of ambient icy beauty at the start. Without the existence of different cultures within one musical framework, where would Tales Of The Inexpressible
be left? Although there are some recurrent themes, such as Raja's flute, which was underused on Nothing Lasts... But Nothing Is Lost
, you can never really say what's coming next, apart from making a tentative prediction that it's going to take you down another musical avenue. Mentioning the flute in more detail briefly, it really does make the album, as far as I'm concerned, and is ultimately a key factor in what lifts this above Nothing Lasts... But Nothing Is Lost
, which is more guitar oriented. Best shown on final track Flute Fruit
, which is imbued by a beautiful melancholy by the single flute over atmospheric layers of noise, it's constantly adding a haunting wonder to Tales Of The Inexpressible
, making it far more than merely a 'dance album'.
It says something that this album amazes me almost as much as marine life, which remains one of the most wonderful things in the world. If you're looking to get into electronica, this would be a good place to start in many ways, such is the variety of music found on this album. The only downfall? Once you've listened to it and started coming close to fully appreciating Tales Of The Inexpressible
as an album it's going to be very hard for you to find much other music which compares to it. Certainly there isn't much which sounds like it that comes anywhere near being in the same musical league.