A new album from Esmerine is always an event, but Dalmak surpasses expectations. A trip to Istanbul inspired the group (now a quartet) to collaborate with a host of Turkish musicians, and the incorporation of international instruments provides a unique allure. These include darbuka (goblet drum), bendir and erbane (frame drums), bağlama and saz (stringed folk instruments) and duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument). The duduk (played here by Baran Aşık) is my personal favorite, as it has been since I first heard it played on Peter Gabriel’s Passion. The instrument’s timbre comes across as simultaneously contemplative, mournful and holy, and is balanced beautifully by the other Turkish flavors. Back on the Canadian side, Esmerine’s core marimba and cello are augmented by the contrabass and violin. On any other album, the presence of Sarah Neufeld on two-thirds of the tracks would be the lead story; her contributions here are exquisite, but the Turkish contingent lands the starring role. (For more on Neufeld, check out our recent review of her excellent solo debut, Hero Brother, also available from Constellation).
Esmerine doesn’t release many albums, and when they arrive, they do so in pairs. If Only a Sweet Surrender to the Nights to Come Be True and Aurora were released in 2003 and 2005, when strands of GY!BE still rested on the shoulders of Rebecca Foon and Bruce Cawdron. The languid, string-heavy pieces were a direct connection to the post-rock of the previous century, but brave experimentation set the then-duo apart from its peers. If an aural connection to Dalmak exists, it can be found in the Middle Eastern-tinged finale of the 17-minute “Histories Repeating as One Thousand Hearts Mend”, one of the standout tracks on Aurora. Approaching from the other direction, echoes of these albums can be found in two of Dalmak‘s non-Turkish tracks, “Learning to Crawl” and “White Pine”. Foon’s cello work on these pieces reminds us of why we first fell in love with the band.
La Lechuza (2011) was a break from the past, a tribute to a departed friend. The songs were shorter (none over eight minutes), the marimba more prominent; the band even presented a pair of poignant vocal tracks. And now comes Dalmak, again resisting the urge of extension. The irony: we would be happy to listen to these songs for hours on end. Of particular note: the deep jazz inflections of “Lost River Blues I”, the first track to feature all six guest musicians; the burst of energy at the start of “Lost River Blues II”, followed by the trumpet at the end; the instrumental choruses of “Barn Board Fire” (beginning at 2:02 and 3:21); and “Translator’s Clos I” (1:35, 3:19); and the final sweet transition of “Translator’s Clos II” (2:55). With so many good things going on in a single album, this one’s easily Esmerine’s finest work to date. Ten years after their debut, they’re still improving. (Richard Allen)