17 Pygmies: CII: Second Son

After a 2010 detour into post-civil war folk-blues settings on The Outlaw J.D. Ray, 17 Pygmies returns to the art-rock universe of 2008's instrumental space-rock opus Celestina for part two. If anyone's earned the right to explore such stylistic extremes, a band with a thirty-year history behind it would seem to have as much right as any. Having said that, I'll confess that the 17 Pygmies captured on CII: Second Son is closer to my preferred ideal. The band's gone through several mutations over its three-decade run, including stints as an ‘80s-styled techno-pop band, post-punk outfit, and even ‘70s-styled classic rock band. After composing prog rock scores to classic silent films (Battleship Potemkin, Nosferatu, and Tarzan), Jackson Del Rey plunged the band even further into prog territory in 2008 by initiating the Celestina cycle (based on the 15th-century Latin novel La Celestina), ostensibly bringing us to the present. As always, the band—Del Rey (synthesizer, guitar, bass), Meg Maryatt (vocals, synthesizer), Jeff Brenneman (vocal, keyboard, guitar), and Dirk Doucette (drums)—takes especial pride in the presentation of its work, in this case packaging the CD in a limited-edition, foil-pressed sleeve that includes a thirty-two page booklet containing part two of the “Celestina Short Story.”

On this middle chapter in a projected three-release series (the final installment is scheduled to be issued one year after the second), the forty-five minute journey gets underway with deep space whooshes that cede the spotlight to a lovely and stately overture of delicate harps, glockenspiel, and synthetic strings. The music this time around is at times dramatic and mysterious, always polished, and even at times epic, as any recording of a prog-styled nature might be expected to be. Simple yet nevertheless haunting themes, often voiced by glockenspiel and synthesizers, recur from one track to the next, and symphonic synths are used to create lush, flowing backdrops for the melodies to intone against. Funereal space dirges appear, Heather Lockie adds viola playing to three of the tracks, and contrast emerges when Maryatt's vocals appear on three of the album's eleven songs, the slow-burning waltz “Celestina XIII,” earthy ballad “Celestina XVII,” and haunting “Celestina XIX” (where Lockie's warble gets a healthy workout). The material's pronounced synthesizer presence brings out the band's professed allegiance to ‘50s science fiction films, as does the music's dark tone. At this stage of the story, Captain Mora and fellow astronaut Isabel wake up after traveling through a black hole to discover a colony of robots, but, frankly, the recording would prove to be as satisfying were the story wholly absent, given the high calibre of the music on offer. It's an amazingly strong collection that impresses all the more for coming from a band of such long-standing.

May 2011