Isabel II: Abaddon Rising
It can, admittedly, be a challenge keeping 17 Pygmies' various stories straight. Between 2008 and 2012, the group, officially in operation since 1982 and spearheaded by Philip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey), released its three-part opus Celestina (whilst also making room for 2009's The Outlaw J.D. Ray) and then turned its attention to another multi-part epic, Isabel. They're not wholly distinct projects either, as their respective narratives do overlap in key ways. Adding to the challenge, Isabel II: Abaddon Rising is identified in the accompanying promo text as some kind of follow-up to 1985's Captured in Ice as opposed to 2013's Isabel.
Complications aside, the new release holds up fine, and the listener will derive ample pleasure from it whether the music is approached on its own terms or as part of a larger project. Whereas the text exemplifies a sci-fi character, the forty minutes of music feels more like the soundtrack to a children's fairy tale or even young adult fantasy; generally speaking, the disc's ten parts are highly melodious and harmonious, and the Pygmies' art-pop, especially when the singing's primarily handled by Meg Maryatt, goes down smoothly. In addition to the group's formal members, Del Rey (guitar, synth, bass, vocals), Maryatt (vocals, classical guitar, synth, accordion), guitarist Jeff Brenneman, and drummer Dirk Doucette, guests appear, most conspicuously Jean Sudbury, whose strings and mandolin add much to the album's soundworld.
That Isabel II: Abaddon Rising picks up where Isabel left off becomes evident when “Isabel XII” opens the album with a lilting ballad elevated by Sudbury's luscious strings and Maryatt's serenading voice. A rustic folk feel infuses the song, but elements of prog, pop, and classical are present, too, and Maryatt's lead is appealingly complemented by background singer Lea Reis. Only about half of the tracks include vocals: on the instrumental front, a lightly swinging dance groove powers “Isabel XIII,” its quasi-house pulse augmented by glockenspiel sprinkles and strings; “Isabel XV” presents a multi-hued paradise rich in sumptuous detail; and the entrancing folk laments “Isabel XVII” and “Isabel XIX” evoke the rustic countryside in their blends of strings, accordion, and guitars. On an album marked by sometimes surprising change-ups, the concluding track ventures into dance-funk territory, proving that the group still has a few tricks up its sleeve decades after it first appeared.
Accompanying the CD is a small booklet containing twenty-six pages of text by Del Rey. A nice supplement to the recording, the multi-chapter story recounts the experiences of a number of figures, among them: Isabel, a Centre fugitive newly acting as a raconteur sharing tales with an underground people's children about Captain Mora, His Holiness, and others; Celestina interfacing with Abaddon, a program seemingly intent on promoting rage and hate as productive forces; and William, a soldier fated to come face-to-face with Celestina at the second part's end, and his wife Saro. It's a perfectly engaging narrative, though, typical of middle sections, it feels rather truncated, separated physically as it is from the first and bereft of the resolution that its concluding part presumably will confer. The text would have benefited from a couple of things: a single-paragraph recap of the opening part to re-acquaint the reader, and a more careful proofread to correct the small number of typos that mar the text. Weaknesses aside, the release, another memorable addition to the 17 Pygmies canon, is certainly better with the booklet than without it, and it's also enhanced by a lavish visual presentation that sees the CD cozily housed within two foil-stamped sleeves.