Dominic Frontiere
Pagan Festival






Hailed by fans as one of the best symphonic Exotica works ever created, Dominic Frontiere (born 1931) really achieved something remarkable with his album Pagan Festival, released in 1959 on Capitol Records with detailed liner notes by Frontiere's patron Alfred Newman on the back. It is in fact so utterly remarkable that I hesitated for many months to write a review of one of my most beloved records of all time, regardless of the artist, year or genre. Don't let that subpar front artwork fool you… this is aural aurum! A skillful composer of themes like The Outer Limits, The Fugitive or Vega$, Dominic Frontiere is also known for being a Jazz accordionist and bandleader of the Mighty Accordion Band. And indeed, his signature instrument can be found on many of the 12 unique compositions – with both English and Incan titles – off Pagan Festival as well, but it is carefully placed next to exotic drums and percussion instruments, harps, flutes, horns and strings as well as a mixed choir.


The prospect of the album is a much more dreamy transfiguration of ancient Inca rituals and the many tribal romances; in terms of a faithfully genuine approach, Pagan Festival fails miserably, and so does every Exotica album anyway. The fact that the Incas did not use the accordion is a sad one (isn't it?), but Mr. Frontiere connives. The arrangements shuttle between many destinations, some of them slightly Oriental, others glaringly Asian, but only one of them is truly dedicated to a Hollywood-focused view on the Incas, but more about this in a few moments. It is best to ignore the supposed overarching theme, as the tunes shine on their own even if they are stripped off their conceptual arc. By comparison, the strikingly similarly titled and structured Pagan Love by Stanley Wilson, released in 1961 on Capitol Records as well, is more successful in this regard, presenting 12 destinations situated in a wide array of jungles all over the world while using nearly the same orchestral ingredients and instruments as Dominic Frontiere.


I do indeed recommend both albums wholeheartedly, but have to admit that Frontiere's LP takes the cake, for it is much dreamier and less melodramatic over its course. I may have given away the overall setting, but Pagan Festival has to offer so much more, so please bear with me as I explicate them below, or jump to the conclusive paragraphs for another outlook regarding its importance.


Dominic Frontiere kicks the album off in a superb and very vivid way with Festival, a micro suite which introduces the listener to the aural color spectrum and the ubiquitous feeling of elation which meander throughout the album. Many of the themes and motifs that reappear later are gathered here. Instead of starting with a soft overture or meandering prelude, Frontiere's orchestra unleashes marvelously mellow string-infused staccato tone sequences of the Far Eastern kind. The timpani drone, the violins are rose-tinted and majestic, but the real and unexpected standout feature undoubtedly comprises of the punchy congas and plinking triangles which provide an eclectic percussive thicket in tandem with the bongos and various goblet drums. The impetus of this segue works so specifically well because of the omission of Hollywood string fanfares which are introduced a tad later. A mixed choir introduces itself to the spotlight a cappella, all instruments are muted, the echo of the voices twirls through the hall.


A tempo shift takes place and reveals a magnanimous amount of soothing orchestra goodness complete with euphonious melodies, brazen brass accompaniments, glockenspiel droplets and futuristic (!) flutes. Admixed vibraphone cascades and harp droplets boost the intimacy and let the arrangement shift into quartet-like regions. And that enchanting timbre! Solemnity and pleasant anticipation coalesce before the composition returns to its rapid-firing form, making Festival a genuinely splendid symphonic take on the Exotica genre which ends in a string-coated choir-fueled finale. The choir is never over the top and injects bold doses of exhilaration and majesty. Festival is one of the greatest vintage Exotica fanfares of all times, shifting its shape while maintaining the interest of the listener in each of its sections. Despite the constant vignetting and different tempos, it preserves its blazing gestalt. 


Up next is the positively dualistic House Of Dawn (Paccari-Tampu) which merges its sugar-coated mystery with Space-Age oooh-oooh and aaah-aaah vocals, bubbling double bass blebs, sweeping harp glissandos and sizzling maracas in tandem with guiros. Whirling chimes and ornamental trumpet blasts work enormously well in-between the glistening ingredients. This is an admittedly harmless, completely saccharine work, but oh so languorous and eminently catchy! The album does not continue the auroral rose-tinted path though, for the already portentously titled Temple Of Suicide (Ixtab) presents a faux-Incan melodrama in the tradition of Moisés Vivanco's arrangements specifically tailored for Yma Sumac. It lives up to its title and is much more sinister, even in the given Easy Listening prospects, and remains a curiously extraordinary appearance on an otherwise gaudily beamy opus. Frontiere starts this tune with an Oriental shawm-emulating bass flute melody around whose nucleus a nervously lamenting choir gyrates, the vesiculation of the accompanying flutes and strings becomes more hectic, the ambiance is murky and fast-paced. The middle section sees thundering timpani, sanguine strings and the climax in the form of the enigmatic choir.


Additional glockenspiels invoke an aura of malevolent magic. A histrionic helix of hazardous happenstances unfolds, the composition rises and falls, always rekindling the monumental momentousness of the sinister procession. All in all, Temple Of Suicide is the darkest piece of the album and one of the shadiest, most perilous and cinematic Exotica anthems ever created.


From this point onwards, everything is positively beatific and jocund: while the following Moon Goddess (Ixchel) returns to the formerly depicted innocence and places it in a nocturnal setting loaded with mellifluous, increasingly pompous choir susurrations, opalescent percussion and a permanently shape-shifting percussion in adjacency to a wealth of balmy horns, liquedous flutes and accordion runlets, it is Time Of Sunshine (Yaxkin), the fitting foil to Moon Goddess, that reminds of the glorious catchiness of Andre Kostelanetz' Lure Of The Tropics (1954) and is repainted with a slightly carnivalesque complexion. The joyous strings are in the limelight, whirring omnipresently around and in-between the accordion streams, flute mirages and glockenspiel sparkles.


Distantly droning horns round off the sunscape, with the following Goddess Of Love (X-Tabai) relying on the exactly same mood which gets even more saturated, blissful and joyful due to the beautiful harp creeks, technicolor strings as well as the great interplay between the aqueous click-heavy percussion and the similarly moist double bass vesicles in midtempo ranges. A thin yet piercing accordion segment on the right speaker is the only bucolic and questionable ingredient, but it does not degrade the flawless fluxion in the slightest. Side A ends with an ethereal blast.


Side B is equally successful and offers a string of magnificently good-natured – if also increasingly chintzy – compositions. The simply delightful House Of Pleasure (Tampu-Anca) is one of the most peaceful, pastel-colored works, establishes a Far Eastern mélange of entangled choir layers, but injects a prominently galloping percussion frame to the transfiguring brass drops and uplifting harp aortas. The second section sees the vigor of the timpani increase as the melody becomes more Asian than before due to traces of pentatonic tone sequences caused by the interlocution of the strings and reeds. House Of Pleasure ends with a grandiose Chinese gong and encapsulates all the promiscuous thoughts one might possibly have in hindsight of the track title.


The Harvest (Zax) offers yet another rapturous panorama of greenery-evoking strings, with blurry horns underpinning the polyphonous flute spirals. Bamboo rods and echoey congas ennoble the convivial mood of this enormously bright ditty further. Yet again, there is a synergetic peculiarity taking place that unites the typical fairground organ timbres with plinking triangles, thus making The Harvest glaringly syrupy while pushing it a bit too far away from the already long shot interconnection to Incan music. But hey, that's Exotica in a nutshell. The following Corn Festival (Zabacil Than) is thematically and conceptually linked to The Harvest and hence consequentially draws from the same spirits and instrumental pool. Effervescent harps, lachrymose strings and the clog dance-like percussion scheme realize a coruscating, if also a tad too clichéd gem. Pizzicato balalaikas swirl above the crunchy percussion, glamorous glockenspiels and silky flutes posture in adjacency to the multifarious strings.


The effulgence of The Harvest and Corn Festival is admittedly auroral and rose-tinted, but these tunes replaced the exotic mystique with the ultimately mirthful gaiety of the late 50's, and even though the orchestration is successful and the wideness as well as the great diversity of the instruments lead to multilayered sun-dappled pieces, I cannot deny that these two tunes of side B are not only the least dreamy or luring ones of that side, but the whole album. For these reasons, Pagan Festival could potentially jump the shark – or obsidian dagger – were it not for the final compound of three gargantuan masterpieces in a row.


Pagan Festival then unties god-like apparitions, altering its physiognomy with significant harmonies: God Of Seasons (Kukulkan) closes the fairground-resembling harvest-related sub-theme in an astonishingly hypnotic way. The lead-in comprises delicately hollow congas and sizzling maracas which are then united with a paradisiac lead flute of the Polynesian-Asian kind. This setup is then augmented further with enthralling string washes and soothing clarinets of the entrancing pentatonic kind. Akin to the album opener Festival, Frontiere changes the tempo of God Of Seasons and lets its strings bubble and float joyfully. There is even plenty of time left to include another segue of a percussion thicket!


God Of Seasons ends with cascading horn eruptions of the Roman kind which set the tone for Jaguar God (Balam), a tune whose title sounds more threatening on paper than its aural form eventually suggests; Dominic Frontiere focuses on the percussion side complete with croaking guiros and echoey congas, wondrously low harp strings and dark piano bits and an all in all gorgeously laid-back aura that is topped off with vibraphone dew drops, catchy melodies and a soft percussion-related crescendo near the end. Particularly noteworthy are the iridescent horns which now play a rising theme instead of the downwards-spiraling finale in God Of Seasons. This penultimate track is gorgeously texturized, everything is available in raw numbers: textures, melodies, harmonies, percussion.


It is a fantastic track which can only be outshone by the divine apotheosis that is Venus Girl (Ix-Koben). This wonderful spectral being poeticizes its superstructure with Les Baxter-esque warped orchestra strings loaded with glory, downwards floating tone sequences and honey-like harps. The short section of a lead fiddle expands the carefree innocence of this hyper-dreamy concoction. Venus Girl ends the album in an awe-inspiring way, and I rather want to leave it at that, for this tune has to be heard to be believed. Superlatives are not enough, hyperlatives should be used. A revelation!


Pagan Festival outshines Stanley Wilson's similarly titled and like-minded Pagan Love by a wide margin, which is quite an achievement, for the emerald-green junglescapes of that album are already in a class of their own. Dominic Frontiere's album is still a lot better due to its less melodramatic dimensions. With the exception of the ferociously brutish fiend Temple Of Suicide, all of the remaining eleven compositions gleam, shimmer, shine… and transcend. Everything on this album seems to be awash with light. The melodies and tone sequences are altogether vivacious and colorful, sometimes over the top, occasionally a bit too sugar-sweet, but incessantly pushed by erethism. Pagan Festival is furthermore one of the few records next to Milt Raskin's Exotica masterpiece Kapu (1959) which manage to include the accordion in a non-clichéd, unremittingly tasty way. There is a reason why Dominic Frontiere called himself a Jazz accordionist, for he did not have any stereotyped use in mind akin to John Scott Trotter's Escape To The Magic Mediterranean (1956) or Irv Cottler's Around The World In Percussion (1961).


I won't mention my favorite compositions off Pagan Festival in this final paragraph as I tend to do every so often, for the whole album is a feast for the ears. Is it the very best symphonic Exotica album there ever was? Oh my, please let me weasel out of this question! From a purely melody- and texture-related aspect, I would definitely put it into my top 3 of all time. Its 12 tracks are unique and specifically written for this album, the hooks and atmospheres are both relaxing and benign, I sense that Dominic Frontiere takes the Exotica fan serious – unlike, say, Michel Magne – since the arrangements are perfectly balanced, no particular instrument is in them for the sake of it, in order to take a stand or for advertising certain trends and recording techniques (take that, you many albums with the term Percussion in your titles!). Pagan Festival is an honest, devoted and greatly carved out album. Its thematic concept may be diluted one too many times – a feat Stanley Wilson's Pagan Love does better – and very rarely unchains the mentioned Incan scheme, but this is the desperate fling of nit-picking on my side.


No doubt: Pagan Festival is über-essential and one of the best Exotica records ever created. It was re-issued on CD in 2002 already (big thanks to radio host Darrell Brogdon from for pointing this out!) where it is coupled with Frontiere's kitschy-gorgeous dichotomy Love Eyes, and is also available in digital music stores. The quality is pristine, the plasticity tremendous. If you only got the vinyl or a bad rip, you owe it to yourself to check out the remastered reissue which almost makes me want to trash the LP… it is that good, and Dominic Frontiere's opus truly deserved it anyway.


Exotica Review 211: Dominic Frontiere – Pagan Festival (1959). Originally published on May 4, 2013 at