For sheer contrast of tone and rhythms, BABAL have pulled off a wonderfully lyrical, yet progressive collection of tunes on this, their latest EP. It’s easy to forget that Karen Langley’s versatility as a vocalist stretches from high-strung belt out avant-garde imagery to the mix we have here of poignancy and rich,lush,satin quality vocalese.
Let’s start with “Bones and Blood Rise up”. The juxtaposition of jazz rhythms featuring Jon Sharp’s exacting time signatures blends into full harmonic convergence with a great, grounded bass and guitar/synth patterns from the skilful Rob Williams.
Flattery for the half-time, slightly dragging vocal of fragile beauty from Karen – more like lace patterns around the wedding cake, embroidering a powerful central force. But this cake isn’t very sweet and promises some Miss Faversham moments; “take my hand and come to the lonely places, where the poor feed and grieve, take my hand and come”.
This is truly a tale of 21 st Century Britain, couched in a jazz-folk polyrhythmic language that crosses the continents. Unusual, unsettling and by the time you get to the final chorus “Do you stop to think how you behave affects us? Do you have thicker skin, one that can’t protect us?” the chilling ex-machina delivery of Karen, underpinned by the mournful, lounging guitar of Rob, leaves a sad twist to a beautifully executed tale of imminent rebellion.
Onto “Frank’s Lament” and from the opening sedate and powerful chords and completely off-kilter vocals, we know we are in for a somewhat different ride. Language and mood hold all the keys in this piece; flurries of wonderful synth oboe and orchestrations abound, illustrating and complementing the fabulous dips and dives of Karen’s outrageously over-prog vocal that borrows angst from Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weil, Dietrich and Nico, amongst others.
But none of those really nails the unique sound and vocal quality that Karen produces on this track. It’s a gorgeous journey as Frank finds he has one foot in the real world and his head floating in the ether. He has put the ladder against the wall and is ready to climb over the top to salvation. Robs guitars draw him up and we go with him, off into the sunset.
“Frank’s Lament” is a mega-prog track of lushness, with vignettes of intricacy and lightness. Three- quarters of the way through you are suddenly pitched into a darker place – never expect a commonplace dream or nightmare in a BABAL track; Frank has mood swings.
Entirely different territory for “The Axe”, a plangent folk fable of almost medieval brutality. Karen lulls us into a mysteriously dark description of violence in the forest; who has the axe? What was the crime? Slow, rhythmic drums and music build as the voice progresses, coming right down again to a menacing whispered warning at the end of the song; “Talk quietly, but carry a big stick....” An entrancing oddity pulsing with a dark underbelly.
One of the favourites on this EP has to be “Endless Re-run” – maybe it’s the track that epitomises the BABAL world-glance at its most acerbic and zany. “What do we want? We want what we had” is the opening line, and Karen proceeds to whirl us through a broken Britain that has an almost innocent desire (initially) to destroy itself with pleasure and addiction.
As sharp guitars change the backdrop, the story changes, giving vent to the inequalities of the endless re-run society that will always be there to pick up the pieces. Where no-one really cares about you unless you have money – again, Karen recalls a Brechtian view of a community lost in its inability to value anything beyond cash, property and addictive lifestyles. And yet it is funny! It bubbles along with hellish guitars and great rhythms – this world has life and refuses to be squashed! The manicness and elitist madness flows through the song, leaving you excited and exhausted. A stand-out track.
But maybe “Frank’s Lament” is the track that will introduce a whole new audience to BABAL’s unique take on the musical story-telling world they inhabit. It would be an invitation worth taking up and maybe a new classification of cross-over genre music could be said to be “Babalesque”; no label, just music. Switch into whichever gear tells the story best – and expectsome beautiful music from the centre of the heart.
Kit Pallanto. November 2019