Pagan Rites






Pagan Rites is the long-awaited full album-length debut of the Gothenburg-based quintet Ìxtahuele, released in May 2013 on the Swedish Subliminal Sounds label in a limited LP edition, CD form and a digital download version. I first discovered the band’s gorgeous EP The Exotic Sounds Of Ìxtahuele in May 2012 and immediately contacted the fellows to inform them about the joy this EP brought me. It still does to this day. It is one of these rare revelatory moments in Exotica history, one huge surprise I did not even dare to dream about. One year later, and the surprise level reaches thresholds close to erethism (better not use a thesaurus here). Pagan Rites comprises ten unique tracks, with three of the previously EP-only compositions making a glorious appearance on the album.


You have read that right: no renditions, interpretations or remixes of Jazz standards or vintage Exotica nuggets, this is all new material coming from the inventive minds of Ìxtahuele. The band's personnel includes the two vibraphonists and percussionists Wictor Lind and Mattias Uneback, dedicated percussionist Johan Hjalmarsson, pianist Carl Turesson Bernehed as well as bassist Henrik Nilsson. What was applicable in terms of the band’s EP is also of value here: a whopping three percussionists make sure that body and soul will be busy with soaking up the textural range of the various bongos, guiros, congas, triangles, djembes, tom toms and claves. In addition, the melodies shine. The mallet instrumentalists sway to and fro between the exotic art of Cal Tjader and Arthur Lyman, whereas the pianist is inspired by the godfather of Exotica Martin Denny and either underlines the gentleness of a given segue or moulds exciting colorations into each chord.


Pagan Rites is universally exotic in the true sense of the term: from a strictly Latin lucency over Polynesian pigments and voodoo incantations to travels back in time to the Ottoman Empire or even subterranean cavities, Pagan Rites unchains a mercurial maelstrom of multitudinous mesmerizations. Almost each track is divided into two distinct parts at least; sometimes the percussion structure gets enhanced, in other moments the tempo is mercilessly increased, and then there are the intersections which come as a surprise and literally shock the abstracted listener. Furthermore, each track consists of a magnanimous fade-out phase which allows the decay and sustain of the instruments to reverberate in a moiré of mellowness, a stylistic triumph I dutifully noted in the band's EP as another signature column.


Regardless of these dreamy parts, Ìxtahuele bring an excitement into the Exotica genre that was always kind of there, but is now severely multiplied. The band risks the danger of boiling over their test tubes. Will they survive? And what constitutes the magic of Pagan Rites? Find out below in a review which culminates my listening experiences made in German pine woods, Canary mountain ranges, dawned dunes and at home with me and all my neighbors in the surrounding area bopping to their very own enraged Pagan movements thanks to Subliminal Sounds who provided me with an advance copy for review purposes.


Black Sand is the first destination of Ìxtahuele’s vivacious voyage, one that fans of the trio already came across, for a studio performance of this tune has been previously uploaded on YouTube. Well, what better way to start the actual review with an exclamation like: shiver me timbers! Carl Turesson Bernehed’s dark four-tone rhythm piano melody injects a surprisingly murky timbre akin to the devoted concupiscence found in many a retro Latin corker of the 50’s. Fizzling cymbals whirr in adjacency to birdcalls, Mattias Uneback’s and Wictor Lind’s spiraling vibraphone and glockenspiel heterodyns add that certain tropical Jazz eclecticism to the mélange, but only when the granular maracas and hollow bongo blebs enter the scenery do Black Sand’s downhole rhizomes feel eminently interred in Latinisms par excellence. Like Margarita Lecuona’s gold standard Tabu (or Taboo), the mood is hard to pinpoint and decidedly polymorph: whereas the prelude is draped in duskiness, mystique and that certain yearning, Gothenburg’s dutiful boys transform the hatched hue into wind chime-accentuated sunburst sceneries with a magnitude of tone sequences in major, snake-like rattling sounds and warmhearted piano harmonies… before another U-turn leads back to astray paths of forsaken alcoves.


During the cusp of Black Sand, i.e. the middle of its duration, the rising vibraphone-accompanied piano stabs in tandem with the hissing critters are magnificent, truly vintage-oid and do indeed remind of the exciting spy-evoking tension found in many a rendition by Martin Denny or – thanks to the inclusion of the vibraphone – Cal Tjader specifically; and they appear near the end once again. The midtempo beat which schleps itself forward in a bemused way makes this a superb opener coated in duality, not yet firing on all cylinders…


… for this is the task of Rarohengan DanceRarohenga is the underworld of the Maori, so one would expect a designedly labyrinthine percussion prowess of the besotted kind rather than sun-dappled greeneries. Ìxtahuele deliver both. Since this is Exotica after all, rest assured that the quintet interweaves more than a few coruscating melody aortas. First and foremost, however, the hour of the three percussionists is nigh: Wictor Lind and Mattias Uneback conspire with dedicated percussionist Johan Hjalmarsson and unleash the beast. Frantic hi-toms, bongos and congas meet, clash and depart in close proximity to sleazy vibraphone scintillae, xylophone droplets and mellow piano chords. Like a rapid journey to rainforest groves, Rarohengan Dance oscillates between intimidating and earth-shaking drum sections and enormously mellifluous-playful melodies. Despite their jumpiness, they are memorable due to their textures. This is no apocalypse. It is an apocalypso. 


Brugmansia is the downtempo tune that finally offers a great dose of monothematic masterdom, no strings attached, zero hidden meanings, all simple – but not simplistic – Exotica. Everything is about sunshine and slackery; the easygoing tremolo of the xylophone evokes Caribbean coils, the plinking tambourins underline the lacunar-fissured structure of the rhythm, allowing bassist Henrik Nilsson to literally cover the holes with profound bass runlets. This would not be Ìxtahuele if there was not at least one little shapeshifting feature baked into the sound waves, and indeed, Brugmansia is the gazillionth track of them that carves out the interplay of the three percussionists. The morphogenesis of the rhythm remains, but is now perturbed by croaking guiros which sound deliciously wooden and scraping. Add the luminosity of triangles, the effulgence of the vibes and carefully placed birdcalls to the scenery, and you have Brugmansia, an excitedly drifting tune, no offense intended at all.


After a dreamy fade-out phase, the Stone Gods Of Bimini appear, waiting to enforce their thunderously cracking physiognomy with beady-eyed recalcitrance upon the listener. If there is one tune that shows the elevation of Ìxtahuele from a cocktail bar band into a colossal collective that portentously rocks the scene – any scene –, it is Stone Gods Of Bimini. Naturally, there is a bedlam taking place, but before this climax, the titular Gods are behaving surreptitiously, luring the potential victim with paradisal yet Crime Jazz-influenced vibraphone helixes, constructions of bongos and maracas plus all-male monk chants. Pagan Rites indeed. The monotony of the susurrant hums is loaded with anticipation. Even the faux-birds in the distance feel the aura. Everything is awash with twilight. And then the rumbling drum apparitions appear out of nowhere. Exotica is not known for its shocking surprises, but here the twist works and invokes a stupefaction. The drums sound huge, tribal, savage, well, simply Pagan. If you can, listen to this via speakers, turn up the volume and let the aural turmoil unfold. Comparably creepy: the tune ends as if anything has happened at all.


The scenery is left alone, for the following incident takes place at an Orust Luau, yet another one of Ìxtahuele's two-part visions. Laid-back bongo and conga aortas become entangled with ship signal-like alto flutes – a clear nod to Arthur Lyman whose band used this particularity time and again in their first eight albums – as well as tick-tocking hi-toms or bamboo rods. The mood is anything but paradisal, and while the downtempo atmosphere is not overly jolly, the panorama depicts a strong carefreeness or positive moment of idleness, everything is in fluxion yet allows the sustain of the instruments to merge with the distance. The second part revs up the playfulness, winds up the tempo and increases the effervescence, with the band’s vibraphonists clearly in the foreground. The complexion of Orust Luau then reminds strikingly of the supergroup The Surfmen’s faux-Polynesian masterpiece The Sounds Of Exotic Island (1960), especially so the strikingly similarly titled Luau with its comparable vibraphone superimposition. Notwithstanding this comparison, Ìxtahuele’s take is no rendition but stands on its own feet.


And so does Lotus Eaters, an astonishingly candid piano arrangement with surrounding exotic tidbits you expect from the band. Both pianist Bernehed and bassist Nilsson shine on this forlorn vignette whose aura is similar to the opener Black Sands in that it draws much more from a definitely earnest and even enchanting mood than forcefully gleeful melodies. Notwithstanding the Asian connotations of its title, Lotus Eaters shuttles in Middle Eastern climes, the piano melodies are crepuscular, the tambourines insinuate either a military march structure or try to establish a Tango groove. One can literally feel the upcoming dusk, and while the tune moves into slightly brighter climes as delivered by the iridescent vibraphone polyphony, Carl Turesson Bernehed takes over the lead in the end and offers an infusion of enigma and isolation, with Henrik Nilsson then augmenting these feelings with acroamatic basslines. Of further note is the song's solemn conclusion in major with chirping birds in minor and gently spluttering cymbals. 


The last third of Pagan Rites proves to be the most interesting one for fans who have bathed numerous times in Ìxtahuele’s sublime debut EP which the band made available for free on Facebook. If you love comparing different versions, alterations and interpretations, you are going to have a field day here. Three previously EP-only tracks out of four made it to the album, and I can say that these tunes have not lost any spark of their enthralling magic. The following paragraph is not so much about the uncovering of every little amendment or modification rather than the tendencies of their remodeling.


Searching For Souq is the first tune that made the jump to the album from the EP where it is known as Searching The Souq. On the EP, it is more than a minute longer and placed as the closer. Its shape on the LP is still strikingly Oriental, the mood is strongly cavernous and vaulted, with sitar-like drones whirling through hidden entrances in a pyramid, sudden flashes of shakers expanding the tense situation in unison with their reverberation periods of several seconds, and last but not least vibraphone billows orbiting around amicability and malevolence. In comparison to the EP version, the drums sound punchier and crunchier and seem a tad more convoluted in the positive sense, thus creating a concrete thicket that matches the bricks of a temple. The interdependency between sanguine stimulation, misty mystery and blithesome benignancy is nothing short of wondrous, every action experiences a reaction, as platitudinous this may seem on your reading device. 


Up next is Huahine, a piano-focused song full of gentleness, dedicatedly written for the album. Muffled bongos and a great intertwining of many golden-shimmering piano chords with splendidly downwards spiraling firefly-like serpentines on the same instrument are the showstoppers. On top of that, cocktail culture vibes are added whose gelid traits work greatly as a counterpart. I especially dig the peaceful, placid aurora that is created, no instrument is played over the top, everything is positively streamlined, making Huahine the moonlit artifact of the album dedicated to the French-Polynesian island. Up next is the mighty – excuse me: almighty – Dengue Fever, one incredibly frenzied frenetic furious furor that since my first contact with the band's EP has never left my jogging playlist. This is a pernicious brute supercharged with those archetypical hyper-Latin piano sequences everyone knows. In addition, xylophone droplets, delirious birdcalls, unstoppable bongo placentas and venomous maracas unfold. This is a savage hunt alright! It succeeds due to its histrionic proportions: more tempo, more bongos, more intricacy.


It will always remain a favorite, and this can without hesitation be applied to Gardens Of Mu. Once a cherubic opener of the debut EP, it now serves as the vigorous apotheosis of Pagan Rites. It is a tropical dream come true, with melodies to die for, a paradisiac diorama of several birds, embracing vibraphones and enchanting greeneries before the inner eye. The album version remains in an almost beatless state for over 90 seconds before the plasticity of the rhythm and wind chimes hits. This is supreme catchiness with lots of cavalcades of greenish colors, it is vintage Exotica in the twenty-first century. The long sustain of the Chinese gong marks the end of an exciting album.


Pagan Rites is a magnificent album for so many reasons, and whatever personal inclinations lead the respective listener to the path of enjoyment, I for one view this album from a remarkably devoted angle, even though I only have email contact with Ìxtahuele and am not involved with the production in any way. To me, Pagan Rites is a gem because of the curious transformation that takes place in terms of the pre-album triptych of tracks. Searching For Souq, Dengue Fever and Gardens Of Mu are decidedly polished, but retain their aura from the past. These are songs I have listened to several dozens of times, I know them well and adore the several nods to the genre. To my surprise and luck, the album versions differ enough to not replace or even ostracize the EP versions which retain their very own charm. It is hard to describe and highly personal anyway, so let me just stress that Ìxtahuele did not sell the souls of the original incarnations and handled their composed dobs very well. Listeners who make first contact with the Hukilau performing quintet via this album, I salute you: this is a real treat. This is vintage Exotica, a fact I cannot stress enough in the twenty-first century, and while the genre is now way too beloved all around the globe to ever face a second death or be called a lackluster fad, I am still thankful for the continued efforts in all music-related regards. 


Everything on Pagan Rites is hand-made, there are no drum computers, absolutely zero artifacts from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back catalog of samples, zilch synthesizers involved. Every composition is unique! The band occasionally interprets fan favorites from the days of yore during their gigs, but why bother when their very own omnium gatherum is so well-balanced, catchy and true to the genre? Pagan Rites has something for every modern Exotica listener of all ages. Whether you like sun-dried vistas, percussion-focused base frames, a sense of adventure, sanctuaries populated with birds, epicurean Latin flavors, ferocious resurrections of the cinematic kind, calcined sustain phases or whitewashed streams of bliss, this album has 'em all. Some compositions are unexpectedly serious and focused such as Black Sand and Lotus Eaters, others tastily over the top in regard to their depiction of ebullience off which Orust Luau is the star, and let me not forget the towering gargantuan proportions of the drums found in Stone Gods Of Bimini, Rarohenga Dance and of course Dengue Fever. Three band members are responsible for the percussive side of life.


As I have already written in my review of The Exotic Sounds Of Ìxtahuele: the devoted listener notices this incessantly. Many counteracting ingredients are found throughout the album, but the ensuing soundscape is never stricken with tohubohus. Everything feels fresh, transfiguring, poeticizing, escapism-worthy. Pagan Rites is available on LP, CD and on iTunes. Gothenburg metamorphoses into Guam. This is going to be a long summer.


Further links:

See the official video of Stone Gods Of Bimini at YouTube.


Exotica Review 220: Ixtahuele – Pagan Rites (2013). Originally published on May 25, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.