Where last year's concept album, "Osama," failed because it lacked cohesion and direction, "The Pink Abyss" feels like a fully realized work. Reminiscent of artists like the Animal Collective and the Jewelled Antler, Shalabi Effect's latest album has influences rooted in everything from jazz to Indian drones to pop and rock. At times, this record feels premeditated even though it is 100% improvised. That is a talent in itself. These four musicians have a great feel for each other's musical boundaries, limitations, and ideas; they play off each other seamlessly and it makes the listening experience that much better. I also commend them for keeping this record at a manageable 48 minutes. Too many improv artists are making 80-minute records these days.
Nowhere is the skillful blend of traditional Indian music and '60s psychedelia more apparent than on the nine minute "Iron and Blood." Sounding as if it starts off in an ancient cave with only a small fire to provide light, the track is a journey into the bright, barren Indian landscape. They control the increasing intensity like magicians: tension in the song builds so slowly that it's barely noticeable until, near the end, the song begins to sound huge and suffocating. Chant-like moans grace the beginning and play off the sparse acoustic guitars. Subtle percussion is used that sounds like dried leaves crunching underfoot. Eventually, the pulsing crunch is replaced by a more traditional tabla. As the light of day peaks through the cracks in this cave, electric guitars and droning violins play an integral role. It's stark and beautiful. What really amazes me is that, despite the lack of structure, and despite the seemingly inaccessible nature of the song, it actually has hooks. At full flight, it basks in the heat of the Indian sun. Meditation never sounded so good.
Sultry female vocals of newly-donned Foxy Digitalis fave Elizabeth Anka Vajagic take center stage on the '50s jazz-flavored "Bright Guilty War." Subtle electronics give the track a more modern feeling, but it's all about the vocals. Vajagic sounds so casual and unimpressed on this piece that it's daunting. Bright lights hone in on her, and every guy in the place is at her feet, but it's boring to her. Musically, this track bumps along like a spy creeping his/her way into the heart of the Kremlin. My appreciation of Vajagic and her vocal talents grows with each subsequent listen.
I like this album so much because it flirts with so many different styles of music successfully. Furthermore, it has smooth transitions and nothing seems out of place. "Shivapria," which has more of an atonal quality to it, follows the aforementioned "Bright Guilty War." Much of the track hovers around what sounds like an orchestra's string section tuning up. There's an underlying intensity on this track that is unsettling. Shalabi Effect use these string sounds near the end of the previous track and that's how it slides right into this one. It's done well. The same sounds are used to fall into the most pop moment on the record, "Blue Sunshine." As the jittery strings coalesce into a rise-and-fall pattern, '70s tinged horns glide over the top of the mix. At its root, this track is based on simple guitar chords and rock drumming. Not something I expected from Shalabi Effect, but it works. Bloopy electronics that have a water feeling to them top off the piece.
Perhaps my favorite track is the Eastern-tinged "Imps." The return of the tabla is welcome. I can't explain it, but this song has a vibe to it. It's tribal without being hokey. It moves through stages, finally ending with violins screeching and reeling like they're backed in a corner and about to attack. If you've ever seen the Gandhi movie, you'll probably feel, as I do, that this track would have fit any number of the protest scenes. I'm especially reminded of one in particular, where the Indians keep approaching the gate of a British base (or some such building) in pairs, with no weapons, posing no threat of any kind, only to be beaten down repeatedly by the soldiers. It's a stirring and moving scene; a scene you are unlikely to forget. There is this feeling of "Holy shit, how is this actually happening?" to it, and this track has that in spades. Excellent stuff.
I am such a huge fan of traditional Indian music that it puts a huge smile on my face to hear many artists take those influences and churn out something based in the past, but completely new. As the album works through its lullaby finish, "Kinder Surprise," it eases the listener into a warm, soft blanket. Many of the places visited on "The Pink Abyss" are unfamiliar, but with shimmering guitars and church organs, we are brought back to the place we all began. Straight from the womb and into the crib, this album is dynamic and comforting. Warmth emanates from it like a sun, and when it finally fades out, you'll be sleeping like it was never even there. 7/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)