Manu Delago ~ Parasol Peak

Manu Delago is known as a hang drum master, film composer, Björk collaborator and Grammy nominee, but Parasol Peak should lift him to headline levels.  While he’s released dozens of albums, Parasol Peak is the culmination of a second phase of composition that began in 2015 with the release of Silver Kobalt.

The new album differs from its immediate predecessors in identifiable ways.  Guest vocalists and electronics are absent.  The music is completely organic, recorded live in some of the harshest conditions musicians will ever encounter.  And it’s all been captured on film.  In fact, this may be the best long-form music docudrama since the release of Heima over a decade ago.  The narrative is gripping, even without words.  The cinematography is astonishing.  The frames burst with color and creativity.  The score, or more accurately, sonic dialogue is beautifully composed, perfectly suited to its subject.

The music holds a deeper resonance once the conditions have been appreciated.  Delago leads seven musicians into the Alps, pausing at various altitudes to record these tracks, building his way to Parasol Peak (3003m).  The expedition begins in benign fashion, as the ensemble performs in a forest, content to tap brushes against trees and create splashes in streams.  In this sense the group is reminiscent of Origamibiro, famous for its creative percussion.  Yet the latter band remains safe in their studio while Delago and friends brave the cold and snow.  When ropes, helmets, grapples and ice hammers become instruments, one begins to wonder if part of the exercise is keeping warm.  Fires are lit by a lake.  As the altitudes increase, so do the layers of clothes, until the summit is reached and one brave or snow mad performer doffs his shirt.

All the while, director Johannes Aitzetmüller keeps those cameras rolling.  One wonders how often the cellist wished she had played a lighter instrument, for example the flute or portable xylophone.  As she ascends the peaks, cello case on her back, she suffers for her art.  Gorgeous visual contrasts are created between the water and snow, the peaks and clouds, and reflected in the music, which begins and ends with expressions of joy but turns sedate ~ and even foreboding ~ in the middle.  The wind can be heard in “Ridge View” like the prophecy of a storm.  At various times, the director hoists the camera aloft to spy from above, offering an impression of solitude.  Eventually, an intense stillness is apparent as the troupe looks out over the vast horizon.

The performers are in turn playful and pensive, seeming to realize only too late what they have gotten themselves into.  The conditions seep into the music, affecting not only the timbres (mouth piano and pipe sounding different at higher altitudes) but the speed and deliberation of play.  If the amount of instrumentation grows thinner as the climbers ascend, it’s a reflection of the sobering conditions.  As Delago writes, “we were trying to survive.”  Imagine an alternate score to Everest in which the climbers are musicians without any Sherpas, and you’re almost there.  But what an explosion of joy when the peak is finally reached, followed by a light-hearted coda recorded in a cabin, safe and warm at last.

Parasol Peak is original, distinctive, risky, bold, and a bit insane.  It’s also brilliant.  There’s nothing like it on the market, and we don’t think it will be challenged any time soon.  (Richard Allen)

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