17 Pygmies: Celestina

There must exist some disproportionate equation dictating that the greater the music produced, the more underappreciated it will be—a fate that hopefully won't befall 17 Pygmies' splendid Celestina. Talk about a storied history: the band's first release, Hatikva, appeared all the way back in 1983 and, after following it up with four more albums, the group went on hiatus for nearly seventeen years until the double-disc 13 Blackbirds/13 Lotus brought it out of hibernation. Having solidified its return with 2007's Ballade of Tristram's Last Harping, 17 Pygmies sounds as vital as ever on the concept album Celestina. Don't let “concept” scare you; though a short story, penned by long-time leader and guitarist Jackson Del Rey, does anchor the release, the album's almost wholly instrumental, plus there's a complete absence of overblown song titles (tracks are identified simply as “Celestina I,” “Celestina II,” etc.) so you're able to hear the sixty-five-minute collection on purely musical terms if that's your preference.

For the record, the inspiration for the project originated from multiple sources: firstly, La Celestina Tragicomedia De Calisto Y Melbea, a novel written in 1499 by Fernando De Rojas that concerns forbidden love and deceit; secondly, the recent news headline “NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak Charged With Attempted Murder In Bizarre Love Triangle”; and thirdly, Jackson Del Rey's short story “Celestina” (apparently about astronauts on a doomed space mission who get high on pure oxygen while exploring a giant nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia )—all three of which naturally led to the “imaginary soundtrack” itself. In keeping with the content, the music unfolds like a symphonic space lullaby, and motifs occasionally recur just as they might in a formally-composed classical work. Celestina's psychedelic space rock variously suggests kinship with Pink Floyd (particularly Dark Side of the Moon) and Spiritualized (circa Lazer Guided Melodies) in particular and‘70s prog in general.

“Celestina I” establishes the dreamlike mood immediately with a hypnotic, vaguely-Middle Eastern sounding theme drifting slowly through the heavens amidst glistening stars and synthetic ambient atmosphere. Track two opens with a slow lilt and cymbal-laden drum pattern that calls to mind Pink Floyd's “Breathe” before Meg Maryatt's voice appears, her spoken-sung words “How does it feel? / To be so close to heaven” only strengthening the dream-like atmosphere. Silken synthesizers languorously stretch across the skies and turn even more serenading in the third piece. The music's stately and symphonic character becomes even evident here when percussive accents add dramatic punctuation during the less celestial passages. The first four tracks find 17 Pygmies opting for concision over excess but that changes with the onset of the thirteen-minute space jam “Celestina V.” The plodding colossus awakens slowly but gradually swells into a menacing mass of tribal drums, droning guitars, and wordless vocals that appears to have been beamed down from some dark star. Track six returns the album to conventional song form with a lovely, slightly anguished ballad featuring Maryatt's soothing vocals. “Celestina VII” reprises the instrumental material from “Celestina II” after which track eight plunges the listener into a fuzz-toned black hole of strangulated guitar riffage and bruising prog character that's leavened by gentle passages featuring angelic vocals, thumb piano, and instrumental shimmer. Ethereal vocals and iridescent synths reinstate the heavenly vibe during the entrancing “Celestina IX,” after which glockenspiel-like tinkles and warbling synth fragments illuminate the night sky's ever-darkening cloak of gloom and the final piece's Spanish-tinged melody returns the music to its origins. Needless to say, 17 Pygmies' remarkable trip offers more than its share of awesome sights and sounds and, as seems to be the case with so many independent releases, Celestina arrives beautifully packaged with its disc housed inside a metallic gold cardboard sleeve that's sealed with wax and a ribbon.

March 2009