Athens-bred saxophonist and composer Phil Gardelis aka Zenjungle is back with a trippy train triptych, released on May Day 2014 on Gavin Catling’s Perth, Australia-based label Twice Removed Records and available to purchase and stream at Bandcamp in a digital and disc-based edition of 50 copies. Neither do I provide best-of-the-year cover lists nor front artwork admiration registers, but if I were, Zenjungle’s artsy India ink giantism sure as hell not only would make the roster but severely crush all of the other inadvertent participants. So the cover looks good, even though it both manages to address and neglect the presented soundscapes: the concept is closely tied to traveling and therefore finds its theme mirrored in the artwork, but even the softest touch of humor is denied in the aural routes of Zenjungle, no matter the intentionally humongous exposure of the artist’s countenance. Traveling with Phil Gardelis, at least in the given endemics of the album’s boundaries, is a thoroughly arcane and intense affair; veiled pianos, translucent guitars, shedloads of effects and swooshing particles as well as the artist’s signature instrument, the tenor saxophone, meet, mesh and depart with field recordings, accidental noise capsules and phantom frequencies. The magnitude of field recordings suggest this album to turn up at a certain Exotica Review Archive by the look of things, but this earthen realness is transmuted along the ride and pieced together with a specific genre which I preciously would not have placed Zenjungle’s music in: New Age.
When reviewers talk about the concept of ethereality, they often try to prettify or seemingly objectify a less-camouflaged New Age nucleus pulsating in an Ambient-based arrangement. No double entendre intended, this is exactly what Zenjungle’s opener Sei is (also) about. The synthetic reticulation is enormously cloudy and bolstered with fugacity; prolonged afterclangs of the metallic kind waft and convulse gracefully, amplifying the already blue-argentine complexion of the efflorescent withdrawal. A pan flute-evoking sine tone braiding protrudes through the spiraling cannelure, offering luminosity within the reticulum of compunction. Ethereality – aka the masked New Age marker – is all over this piece, but two inclusions make the chromaticity of Sei delightfully vivid in particular: for one, there are sylphlike helicoidal Space-Age formations which gyre around the speakers or headphones, be it wind gusts, coruscating catenae or the various softly crushed bits and drop ins. But most importantly, there is Phil Gardelis’ aerose saxophone, an admonitory, pentatonic and centroid adjuvant to the etiolated mélange of blurred pads and glissando glints. Oscillating between an unwritten film noir motif and a callisthenic snake charmer timbre, the diaphanous state of Sei is paradoxically dimmed by this blazing incision. Right from the center of the void, the Jericho horn twirls and vesiculates, outshines the surrounding forces and then vanishes into the abyss of a heating system circulation-based undercurrent. Thickly wadded in sinews, the endpoint of Sei very obviously leads to silence, but here the silence is more pressing than usual, even though this is the gateway to the journey, not its final stage.
How could Sei be the final stage of this album anyway if the gargantuan centerpiece is yet to come? Running for almost 25 minutes, the eponymous Leaving Stations seems to be depicted in the front artwork – it doesn’t take a genius to point out that – and now wants to bewilder the listener with its polysemous shapeshifting acatalepsy. From the outset and in the greater shape of things, Zenjungle shuttles toward a less wraithlike listening experience by making this trip designedly earthbound and decidedly more bucolic, even rural. Field recordings of birds, screeching trains, metallic clings as well as a softly bubbling marimba-like metronome complete with bleepy accompaniments – Hong Kong traffic lights, as the press blurb reveals – open up the arrangement and allow a loftier appearance, an airflow of multitudinous moments, movements and moulds. Indeed, the parallax layers and plasticity allow Phil Gardelis to joyfully neglect the precision, fathoming the multiplexed concomitance of memories, shades and vestibules instead. After five minutes, a mellow synth placenta floats like an aqueous runlet through the distant crowds filled with random noise and nodes of chit-chat. From this point onwards, these instrumental strata remain in the forefront and become the railway that crosses through different landscapes, beguiling acres and tramontane lands. Acoustic guitar strings ameliorate the sceneries further, but it is no bonfire badger guitar! Rather than succumbing to this kind of rusticity, Zenjungle polishes each lick and twang and lets the stringed instrument appear glistening and transcendental. It remains closely tied to the meandering half-tone steps and therefore does not take over the center of attention. The apex of Leaving Stations is built on the reverberated quasi-threnody of Gardelis’ tenor saxophone and its polylayered rectilineal structure. The field recordings have vanished, and while the track’s rhizomes still touch the ground, the journey becomes nocturnal, mystical and dense. Cautiously placed airflows and sylvan doldrums interact with each other, expanding the depth of field, but never let the attention slip from the instrumental interdependence. What a magnanimously balmy trip!
Without A Day rounds off Zenjungle’s travelog triptych with a physiognomy that could be declared as belonging to the Drone genre, and indeed, the golden luminescence of the surprisingly blissful guitar fluxion suggests this very notion, but while the prolonged, elasticized state of the piano and the dark matter coils is droning along and changes its tone color from time to time, there are dots, blebs, scythes and prongs injected at several junctions, busily bubbling through, around and amid the petrified movement. An oxymoron this is alright, but one which is used to interpolate the complemental forces, circumventing ploys that unfold in this enigmatic piece. Not much antagonistic energy is noticeable in the first half of Without A Day, but its tail is almost bellicose, with ligneous woodpecker fusillades, lanthanoid cauterizations and staccato crackles reigning within the droning sphere. There is that certain fear, an ominous portent that the comparably tame gestalt is going to be torn apart any moment, but I don’t think I spoil anyone’s surprise when I say that this is not going to happen in a histrionic way, notwithstanding the tendency of Without A Day to manifest an increasing acidity as it progresses. Even screeching electric guitars appear at the very end, they almost seem like an appendix to the situation, for as soon as they arrive, so does the listener: mind the gap, step out the train, welcome to reality.
Zenjungle’s Leaving Stations is a dedicated travelog album that surfs the ether… or its opposite: purgatory. It is astonishing how self-assured and securely Phil Gardelis moves forward through a thicket of imbalances, aesthetic dangers and loose ties. Whereas Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma (Touch Music, 2011) worships the idea of cleverly cut field recordings in order to tell a story of ghost trains, humid places and deserted sunscapes, Orto Stro‘s recent travelog Deaverchester (Twin Springs Tapes, 2014) admits to a surreal train setting that becomes mercilessly galactic and virtual as the vehicle moves faster into the arcanum. It is not exactly surprising that I am keen to place Leaving Stations in-between the aesthetics of both records – one based on reality, the other a turmoil galore –, however, what does come as a surprise is the balance, the equilibrium, the harmony between the real and apocryphal, the reality-based and post-processed, the acoustic and hyperelectronic ingredients that make Zenjungle’s train triad so iridescent. While there is not a moment of proper elation and truthful thankfulness spawned in any interstice, the motivation of creating a soothing atmosphere complete with scattered enigmas and partially seething infusions is successfully transformed into music. Were it not for the known base of the field recordings and haunting saxophone segues, Leaving Stations would be a proper New Age work which would neither be what the artist intended in the end, nor meant to be the slightest affront. Since the aforementioned ethereality is so strongly attached to – and embroidered in – the arrangements, I can, for once, recommend the specific forsakenness and contemplation of Phil Gardelis’ work to New Age listeners in particular. Drone fans, field recordists and followers of the heterogenous electro-acoustic movement know what to expect from the get-go anyway: an ambiguous trip that covers both your great-grandmother’s and one’s own connotative perception of the term trip.