In this post, we update the continuing saga of Sontag Shogun. Part One was the farewell party; Part Two was the EP. Now the band is happily reunited for Part Three: The Album, which was recorded in three separate cities but will be performed together on tour. It’s been fun to trace this arc all the way back to (the) slowest runner (in all the world), and to note that slow is a less accurate term than measured. The band has allowed its fans to be in on the creative process from start to finish, polishing its pieces to a bright sheen.
“Hungarian Wheat” is the prime example, the only selection to appear on the last three releases. In its original incarnation (a live track on Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield) the track was subdued and sedate. On the LTFI EP, it was still calm, but gritty, thanks to reverb and wind. (The irony of the title was that it was more ambient before its subtitle became “(ambient version)”. On Tale, the track grows longer, incorporates dialogue, amplifies the feedback and increases the dynamic contrast. Is this the final version? Certainly not ~ nor should the prospective listener feel that he or she has just heard the same thing three times. As a song in flux, “Hungarian Wheat” is less three versions than three separate tracks, each with its own appeal.
The same holds true for “Musk Oxes”, which has morphed into “Musk Ox”, sidestepping the small error (one ox, two oxen). Two years ago, it was the set closer, a gorgeous piano ballad featuring a balance of major and minor keys. Last year, it became the album’s lead track, thanks to a haunting video (featured in Part II of our Spring Music Preview). The electronics of the second half are still present, but this time out they are thicker and more amplified. At this point, it’s difficult to separate the impact of the video from that of the piece, but our suspicion is that this may be Sontag Shogun’s signature song. Also reworked: “Jubokko” (now two minutes longer, with field recordings, vocal snippets and an additional layer of drone) and “Let the Flies In” (now shorter and without flies).
In retrospect (and as we had hoped), it’s clear that last year’s “Gekheid Op Een Stokje” was a sign of a new direction: a three-dimensional approach to sound material in which numerous textures play off each other like elements in a tale. The more such elements are added, the more literary this music sounds. Such intentions are evident as early as the title track, an overture saturated with static and stolen conversation. Having lived in different cities, the performers have contributed their own sonic souvenirs, from rainforest recordings to street musicians. The most amusing is the sound of a piano tuner stuck right in the center of the album, adjusting the instrument like a trainer tying the laces of an athlete at halftime. The most evocative is the mission control loop of “Orbit Insertion”, which may once have seemed futuristic, but now seems nostalgic. The loops is a reminder not only of the places we’ve gone, but the places we’ve failed to go. As such, it’s a statement on behalf of the band: that their desire is not to rest on their laurels, but to continue to venture into the great beyond. (Richard Allen)