Kava Kon's debut Departure Exotica is dark and mysterious. Bob Kress and Nels Truesdell create Exotica music that is predominantly synthesizer-driven and thus electronic. The night life scenery the music depicts is fittingly matched with a beautiful artwork by Heather Watts who also provided the beautiful vista for Kava Kon's second album, Tiki For The Atomic Age of 2009. The strong electronic nature may not please every Exotica fan, but the music is interspersed with real percussion and mallet instruments as well as guitars.
The unique selling point of Departure Exotica, to my mind, is the strong counterpoint it carves into the genre conventions: while Exotica classics like The Moon Of Manakoora, Soshu Night Serenade or A Night In Tunisia, among many others, are about nocturnal adventures or romantic nights, Kava Kon add a pinch of the arcane, of dusky gloominess to the majority of their songs. However, the duo also integrates common remnants of the Space Age era, mainly field recordings and late 70's–early 80's audio files from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. All songs fade into each other, maintaining a flow that reminds me of motion, movement or travelog albums. The album title itself leaves room for speculation by implying that the band tries to avoid being tied to the genre or being solely reduced to one style. Read more about the 11 tracks below.
9 Hours is the starting point and a rather short intro: a campfire guitar is plucked while a punchy koto synth evokes a melancholic mood. Vinyl crackles are introduced during a field recording of a floating river plus seagulls. Chinese Pirate fades into this surrounding with a gorgeous bongo beat and superbly quavering organs. While the seagulls keep on screaming, the organs form a rising loop whose polyphony is warm and soothing. Warped synth choirs and female opera chants are interwoven. An eerie xylophone melody is juxtaposed to this setting, creating darkness through iridescence.
Chinese Pirate is a terrific song and one of Kava Kon's very best skits, always oscillating between warmth and glitzy dusk. The following Oceania merges multiple majestic flute melodies on a dubby bassline with gleaming synth pulses and occasional bird noises. The omnipresent bongo beat cannot fend off the stark melancholy of the flute melodies. It is only after 2 minutes when a terrific steel guitar melody enters and completely changes the mood of the song by adding mellifluous warmth to the setting that is further elevated due to short laser beam sounds. Say what you will, but that steel guitar intersection is awesome, harking back to the Hawaiian music of the 50's while transforming it into a translucent thing of the present. Not even a third of the album is played, and two beautiful songs are already delivered!
Moon Mist, a vibraphone-driven song with echoey sustains and placid bongos is next. The main melody is later accompanied by female aah-aah vocals; the only distant element of uneasiness are quickly clicking claves which add a Japanese flavor. With Zombie, Kava Kon arrive in time for a nightly ritual. Hectic drums, tribal chants and an organ-marimba coupling play in unison with a shawm-like synth. Night birds and chirring crickets remain in the background during the creepy performance of the organ.
Build Your House Underground (what a great suggestion!) is a cavernous, echoey ditty with a vocoded prayer, distorted female vocals and vespertine synth pads that accompany the reverberated drums. This song is a good example for Kava Kon's darker spectrum of Exotica: the ingredients – singing women, percussive bongos – have been used numerous times before, but the added hall effect, the vocoder and the 80's Synth Pop create an unusual darkness not often found in the genre. This can also be applied to the 5+ minute long Pyramid Point which is the eschatological centerpiece of the album, although its beginning is rather bright due to a multitextured rising four-note synth melody and backwards played flitterings. All too soon, though, a club-oriented breakbeat with synthesizer-driven swirls and fragile bell backings are merged together with jet noises, whirling winds and distant ocean waves, forming a dark, yet fascinating electro concoction with glacial synth strings.
While Sakau Bar starts with a field recording of pouring rain and morphs into a light Jungle-Ambient track with hectic bongos and sustained deep organs, thus being a reminiscence of deep Lounge tracks played in posh bars, Nan Madol is a glitzy, sneaky spy Ambient tune with an encore of the pouring rain and a shawm melody that is accompanied by Space Age vibraphones. Both tracks focus on a lounge-like Ambient atmosphere, and though they are yet again rather gloomy, they are nonetheless shimmering vibrantly. The synths are much more reduced, allowing the field recordings and vibraphones to be in the limelight. Six Eleven highlights a Caribbean feeling that is realized with typical acoustic guitar backings, wind chimes, synth pad droplets, warped tremblings and lascivious female vocals. Tiki Sunrise, the final piece, is an epic hymn, if a bit cheesy. The melody is highly hummable, with kotos, female opera singers and distorted announcements flowing in and out incessantly, making this the warmest fanfare of the album that ends with gentle ocean waves. This glorious tiki anthem is only beaten by the similarly hymnic outro Journey Home of their follow-up Tiki For The Atomic Age.
Departure Exotica is dark, boldly electronic and at times cold. In direct comparison to Kava Kon's second album, it is much more beat-driven. It also features an unexpected amount of organs, so if this is what you are looking for in Exotica music, Kava Kon delivers. I particularly like the so-called flow of the album, because each song is attached to the following through a field recording which implicitly encapsulates the idea of a departure well enough to be meaningful beyond the boundaries of the music itself. Highlights of the album are the organ-ic Chinese Pirate, the flutey Oceania, the Caribbean Six Eleven, the lovely Jungle-Ambient hybrid Sakau Bar as well as the solemn Tiki Sunrise.
While I believe the album to be dark and mysterious, which is backed by the front artwork, there are a lot of daylight birds and a bustling liveliness that is so typical for those earlier hours. Maybe Watts' artwork, Kava Kon's music and my perception coalesce. Or maybe Kava Kon rather want the listener to interpret their album as vivid and bright? Whatever the appropriate interpretation might be, Departure Exotica is a successful debut with lots of organs and ambience. Since I'm loving Ambient music, it's easy for me to worship Kava Kon's tunes. Exotics fans who don't mind the electronic setup will be pleased with the majority of songs, the chirping birds and the bongo drums which are almost used incessantly on the album. Don't forget about the follow-up Tiki For The Atomic Age which is less focused but oscillates between – who would've thought it? – Atomic Age apocalyptic dioramas and a laid back, downbeat warmth.
- Nels Truesdell's Twitter account is @kavakon.
- Their website KavaKon.com is a feast for the eyes and a gateway to other projects and social websites where Kava Kon participate.
Exotica Review 072: Kava Kon – Departure Exotica (2005). Originally published on May 19, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.