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13 February 2016

Philip Glass - 'Powaqqatsi' (Elektra/Nonesuch)

Whoa, Powaqqatsi is pretty fucking awesome! I didn't remember enjoying this so much as it's a far more upbeat beast than Koyaanisqatsi, as I guess the film probably is too. (I know I saw it too, years ago, and it's more of the same time-lapse stuff meant to indict the Western world's behaviour). This is another record that keeps inspiring me to jack up the volume knob on the ol' Luxman, all the way to 12 O'clock (It's rarely ever past 10, normally) and it's the percussion that makes me keep wanting more and more and more. Powaqqatsi is mostly instrumental until we're about 75% of the way through, though in addition to the instrumentation (again, a mix of synths and instruments that sound like synths), there are some field recordings (possibly from the making of the film) mixed in, and some children's voices that are sort of creepy. Side one's 'Anthem' is split into three parts, intercut with some shorter tracks which take us around the world (as the whole album and film itself manages to do - 'Train to Sao Paulo', 'From Egypt', 'New Cities in Ancient Lands'). But Glass's compositions very delicately walk the line between ethno-musical forgeries and a minimalist composer's vision; you can maybe pick out hints of 'ethnic' melodies in these tracks, but that's pretty much a reach. It all feels united, with pounding drums (the presence of which are the major difference between this and the first soundtrack) and bright brass instruments driving the middle of the soundstage. 'Anthem' is the centrepiece, reminding me of some feeling I've only found in really random bits of music (some Vietnamese pop music, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, and I guess Arnold Dreyblatt as the closest composer influence though there's a feel of a harder-edge Lou Harrison to this music too); it has a pulse, a heartbeat, that is echoed in both the body and the head. See, Dad, minimalism is more than just an intellectual exercise! I suppose the pulsebeat is supposed to echo the relentless assault of modernity on traditional ways of being, or maybe that's just a childish interpretation - either way, it makes this sound so good. The record is well-sequenced (perhaps just matching the film, though the film would be longer than this and from what I remember it's all music throughout); the driving pieces are cut with the more restrained ones, though even 'The Unutterable', the first part of which is probably the record's most mellow point, has an unsyncopated pulse at its centre. More romantic elements enter - the string melody that opens 'Mosque and Temple' is wet and emotional, a million light years from the idea that many people have of Philip Glass as a cold and overly intellectual sound-lord. The 'New Cities' trilogy (which blend into each other seamlessly) also use flutes and some other higher wind instruments over all the synths, making a really accessibly sweet sound mix, but not one that feels manipulative or false. 'CAUGHT!' is the one for the mix tape, a fast-paced escalating maelstrom, just before the vocal-driven ('From Egypt'); but on either side of it, Foday Musa Suso plays guest kora and balafon on two very short tracks named after him, and it feels like a really short interlude that really should have been a lot longer. The track in the middle has an amazing use of a flutter echo/delay behind the Egyptian vocalist; it's one I completely forgot about and easy to overlook after all the dense, driving instrumentation. The only real disappointment is the titular closing track, which feels obligated to chant the title in a deep scary voice just like in Koyaanisqatsi; here, it just feels like an empty gesture, a repetition of an idea that doesn't work so well in this one. But the album, overall, is a zillion times better than I remembered it and maybe I'll even give the film another go.

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