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REVIEW: Itzamna – “Chascade”

If eclecticism is what you search for in your music, chances are you’ve already heard of Itzamna. Originally formed in 2014 by Samuel Dolbeau and Adrien Gretter as a means for musical improvisation and quickly enhanced by the addition of Armand Jourdain, Benjamin Vidal and Clément Belio, the French quintet is the true embodiment of musical diversity, incorporating styles such as jazz, math rock, oriental music and hip-hop (among others) into their playing. Released two years after their first EP Metnal, Itzamna’s début full-length album Chascade sees the band breaking new ground once more while still delivering a coherent end product.

Simply named after a portmanteau of the French words chat and cascade (which would work in the English language as well, by the way), Chascade’s artwork was designed by the wonderful ShePaintswithBlood, whom you might remember from the covers of David Maxim Micic’s Eco and Ego EPs. Her style is gorgeous beyond description and the cat-themed art itself so detailed, doing it justice would probably go beyond the scope of a review. Let me just say this much: the hints of Japanese and oriental imagery will eventually appear in the actual music as well.

Opening with the cinematic waltz of “Crippled Monk”, it becomes immediately evident that Itzamna don’t aspire to paint with the broad brush. Intricate guitar licks meet sensitive piano touches and film score-worthy orchestration, until the tune switches to a bouncy, upbeat rhythm that takes over and leads into the album’s second song and title track, “Chascade”. Guitar and piano once more engage in a poignant relationship, underlined by the precise rhythm section. Originally swirling and lively in composition, the track delves deep into a sombre break towards its middle portions, before once more emerging with the sanguine feel of the beginning, backed by the again stellar string section.

Right after the band’s rendition of medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut’s “Je Vivroie Liement” (which translates from old French to ‘I should lead a happy life’) comes Chascade’s centerpiece, the three-part epic “Shalam”. Split into the portions “Ha’Jah”, “Pathocides” and “Thale”, it was inspired by the story of the Shalam Colony, which was founded in 1884 by Dr. J.B. Newbrough as a utopian experiment to settle God’s Kingdom on earth. I strongly suggest you to read up on this topic, it’s rather interesting.

“Ha’Jah” is a melancholic first step into the trilogy. Jazz meets middle-eastern motifs, and the saxophone is given its fair share of the spotlight. As the song draws to an end, it gets increasingly darker, foreboding what’s to come in “Pathocides”. Much like its predecessor, this track leans heavily towards oriental influences, but starts out as a continuation of the aforementioned dark mood with a gloomy guitar playing. Then, it suddenly shifts towards an overtly Arabic and contrastingly upbeat rhythm, changing the course of the musical narrative yet again, and even another time when ending in a much darker fashion. “Thale” rounds out the bunch in (mostly) staying true to the established formula; starting as a sad, emotive tune, it later blooms in the uplifting main part, but then actually keeps that vibrant feel throughout its cinematic finale.

And then comes the moment of abrupt change, where Itzamna decide to uproot you from familiar grounds and leaving you bewildered yet intrigued at the new premise: “Red Dragon”, featuring none other than Matthieu Romarin from Uneven Structure. Deceivingly in tune with the rest of Chascade’s vibe, the track initially lures the listener further into its runtime, with Romarin’s deep vocals providing an emotional weight. Introduced by a lone piano, then paired with a serenading saxophone, the proverbial house of cards falls together in a blistering cacophony of minor-key piano, dissonant guitars and raspy screaming. After this storm finally calms down, the track returns to its original state, as if to offer some sort of recuperation for the traumatic shift in intensity.

About an hour and a roller coaster of emotion and musicality later, Chascade is over, and one is left to ponder what it really was that just happened. Many bands would have gone down like a lead balloon trying to cram this many different styles and arrangements into one album, let alone one that actually makes sense. Itzamna, on the other hand, in taking two years to patiently and carefully piece together this leviathan of imagination and heterogeneity, seem to have found the key to achieving this almost impossible feat. Chapeau, mes amis, mes sincères félicitations!

Score: 9.0/10

Notable Tracks: “Duet”; “Red Dragon”; “Je Vivroie Liement”

FFO: Chon, Jizue, Tigran Hamasyan, Meshuggah

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