If Dead Can Dance were starting off today, they might sound a lot like Maarja Nuut & Ruum, an Estonian duo whose music is a hybrid of classicism and electronics. Muunduja is the first album they have recorded as a duo, following solo releases and collaborations; in Ruum (Hendrik Kaljujärv), this Gerrard has found her Perry. Her voice (present on half the tracks) may be the most obvious element, but she is also a keyboardist and violinist; Ruum contributes the synths and soundscapes that make these folk stylings seem so mysterious.
“Haned Kadunud” provides a perfect example. Nuut’s punctuated phrasings call to mind ancient villages and traditions, while softly echoed whispers and swirling patches of sound reflect Ruum’s cinematic experience. The violin is embedded in a tribal framework that grows more intense as the track develops. The title (roughly translated as “Geese Disappeared”), marks this as an appropriate album for fall.
And the hits just keep coming. In “Käed-mäed” (“Hands-Mountains”), insistent percussion conjures images of a frantic dance around an autumn bonfire. Nuut focuses on her violin, allowing the listener to appreciate the duo’s instrumentation. When the duo slows things down in the subsequent piece, it’s as if highlight the beauty of Estonian culture; but when the foghorn synth and digital crashes enter, it’s as if the underline the nation’s modernity. One can’t help but wonder if producer Howie B., no stranger to experimentalism, is responsible for some of these suggestions. Wind howls one piece; waves crash in another. Together, the tracks form a loose narrative characterized more by mood than by plot. The title ~ Muunduja (Shifting) ~ is reflected in the ever-changing atmospheres. And as these atmospheres change, so do the perspectives, not only of the composers, but of Tallinn, creating a curiosity about the land dotted with churches and castles, inlets and isles. In Estonia, nature and architecture collide. The same holds true for this album, combining ancient song and technological noise, coming to a head on “Miniature C,” which sounds like a church organ being played in a converted factory.
It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of producing such a blend and making it work. Dead Can Dance established the template, subsequently developed by the Hyperium and Prikosnovenie labels. Since then, too many mystical-minded artists have been content to make new age music with Enigma beats. Nuut and Ruum avoid every pitfall, drawing on traditional music while offering an original vision of where ethnic-based music might head next. Here’s hoping the collaboration continues; this is a compelling debut. (Richard Allen)