Saturday, August 12, 2006

Review: Vas: Feast of Silence

I have an admittedly odd approach to reviewing books, videos, and music: I think it makes much more sense to review something when people have stopped reading it, after the first frenzy of interest has passed, or when something that's very good deserves to be brought back before the public's eye. Later this week, I'll be reviewing Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media, which first came out in 2003. But today we have another look-back review on a 2004 disc from a pair of musicians I've admired for years.

Vas is a band in the New Age genre, comprised of two members: Greg Ellis, who does string arrangements, percussion, keyboards, and provides much of the mastering and mixing. That Vas sounds like so much more than two people is largely to be credited to Ellis. He is a very talented musician with a fertile imagination to complement his partner, the voice and flower of this duo, Azam Ali.

Ali is one of those singers who could read the proverbial phone book out loud and leave you in a quiet rapture. In the group's previous releases, she has done vocalise—wordless song in which the instrumental qualities of the voice are highlighted—and tested. Their debut came with Sunyata in 1997, followed by Offerings a year later. They appear to have gone separate ways and done solo work until 2000 and the release of what is probably their finest effort, the transporting In the Garden of Souls. In 2004, they reunited again with Feast of Silence, in which Ali sings her first English language verse with Vas.

The highlight of this disc is the title track, which features Ali's own poetry. It is a strong, mournful poem on the quiet agony wrought amid a culture defined by loss. An excerpt:

I've seen the signs before:
How wicked these hours,
these times we've seen.
How we built these odes
to our God.

The music is stark, grieving, and anguished. If I were a filmmaker portraying the spiraling trail of tragedy in the Middle East, this lament wouldn't be a bad choice for inclusion in a sountrack. It is evocative of the haunting "Inamorata" from Garden of Souls, yet with a pointed social message that is here delivered in language.

The other English verse on this disc is "The Reaper and the Flowers", from the poem by Longfellow. The rest of the songs are in Ali's traditional sound, a combination of her Iranian roots and Indian home. Ellis provides some thrilling waves of rhythm on "In Our Faith," and Ali reveals her humorous sensuality in "Izgrejala." Fans of Vas (especially male ones) will no doubt agree with the following claim: if (as various surveys have actually shown) Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is the favorite album to have sex to, much of the output of Vas can't be far behind in that worthy purpose.

If you think all New Age music is alike, and that nothing interesting has happened in that genre since Tangerine Dream stopped recording, then you may want to try out Vas. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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