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In the past, Gavin Russom has always explored one particular idea in his music: to use sound to create a separation of mind and body in the listener. On these long, repetitious tracks, elements would introduce themselves gradually, slowly piling on top of one another to build to a thrilling wall-of-sound crescendo. The musical forms have changed throughout Russom’s many, many projects, but whether it was kosmische synth work with Delia Gonzalez or three-hour long death rave sets as Black Meteoric Star, the intention always remained the same.
When The Crystal Ark, a collaboration between Russom and South American filmmaker Viva Ruiz, released their first 12” two years ago, it was an extension of the same principle, this time incorporating influences from South America – Russom had spent an extended sojourn in Brazil prior to the recording of the single. Two years on, the sonics are similar, but the intention of The Crystal Ark seems completely rejuvenated. On their self-titled debut, The Crystal Ark do not feel like another ‘Gavin Russom project’, they feel like a fully-formed band in their own right.
The Crystal Ark have a live show in mind, one that features a full band comprising of a percussionist, two bassists, two more vocalists, dancers and an ‘electronics expert’, alongside Russom and Ruiz themselves, and you can tell that their album is built for live performance from the start. Opening track Ascension sets the tone with its broken electro beat, vocals that enter the track not after six minutes but after twenty seconds, and an actual, genuine hook. This gives way to a new version of earlier single We Came To, an insanely bouncy track built around one contagious, never-ending groove, which was only available in the way rougher-and-tougher ‘House’ and ‘Dub’ mixes before. These first tracks give a clear indication of what The Crystal Ark has become. The keyword is fun. It’s a lot of fun – the Latin percussion makes your hips shake, the vocals are chants, shared equally between genders, constantly shifting between languages, and the basslines are irresistible in their sheer funk force. No one ego takes centre stage, it’s just a bunch of extremely talented musicians coming together and making immensely colourful and joyous music.
It’s certainly a lot more accessible compared to Russom’s earlier records, which were as beautiful as they were impenetrable. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that ‘The Crystal Ark’ is not still a very deep and experimental record – it just means that ‘fun’ and ‘serious’ are not mutually exclusive ideas. Russom’s earlier fascinations are still present, but now the idea of disembodiment seems to be communicated through dance and the hypnotic state that dancing invokes, rather than through a sonic assault. This does mean that the record can at times be forgettable, but that’s not necessarily meant in a dismissive way – it just means that there are moments when you find yourself lost in one element of a track, a particular groove consuming your consciousness and rendering you unable to hear anything else around it. As such, some of the most effective moments on the album are those in which the elements are stripped back, or taken away entirely, such as a drop into a singular sound halfway through album closer Silver Cord.
If there are any particular missteps on the album, these are only the tracks which break from this. Rhodes is a lush, downtempo track in a Fleetwood Mac mold that is fine in its own right, but it feels very considered compared to the unconsciousness jams of the rest of the record, very much a ‘song’ in a songwriting tradition, and at eight minutes it doesn’t have the same progressive build that the other long tracks on the album do. But when it’s at its best, ‘The Crystal Ark’ is pure, intuitive dance music that is clearly the work of musicians that are the masters of their craft.