Emil Richards
Journey To Bliss






Journey To Bliss by mallet instrumentalist Emil Richards (born 1932) is one of the very few exquisitely Oriental Exotica works with a beatnik aura akin to Eden Ahbez's peculiar revelation Eden's Island (1960). Compare the front artworks of both albums and no further questions should arise. As usual though, there is more to the music than its package.


To be more precise, Journey To Bliss fulfills four genre-related premises at the same time: firstly, it is an Exotica work due to its large amounts of djembes, bongos, sitars, xylophones, gamelan gongs and chimes. Originally published by Impulse! Records in 1968, it has been reissued in 2012 together with Richards' Space-Age hyper-esotericism called Stones (1966). Secondly, Journey To Bliss is a Space-Age work as well due to its year of release alone and the ecstatically weird, mysterious and galactic melodies. Thirdly, it is a Third-Stream release thanks to its complex-convoluted tone sequences rooted in Middle Eastern pentatonicism which are themselves less memorable than the occurring interplay between the different surfaces. And finally, it is an artifact of Psychedelia, you know, that kind of sitar-fueled Rock music that promises those who have an open mind to experience a new innermost part in themselves that becomes muuuuch improved the more repeated smoke-aided listening sessions take place.


Five unique compositions have found their ways onto the album, four of them gathered on side A, with side B being reserved for the eponymous opus, a piece of a whopping 20 minutes divided into six parts, describing an out-of-body experience with the help of enigmatic, sun-dried malletscapes, crystalline-aquatic shapes and the occasional dichotomously enlightening-befuddled spoken line by Emil Richards. Since he cannot create such a densely layered record on his own, he is accompanied by his Microtonal Blues Band, a sextet comprising of Jazz guitarists Dennis Budimir and Tommy Tedesco, pianist Dave Mackay (here on the organ and harpsichord), percussionists Joe Porcaro and Mike Craden as well as bassist Ray Neapolitan. Oscillating between heat and milder temperatures, hypnotizing and tranquilizing bell layers and ever-pointillistic xylophone shapes, Journey To Bliss is maximally intriguing, eminently unique because of its aura, but also adamantly complex and willfully multilayered, so be warned in advance that this is no loungey album for cocktail nights or luaus. However, as an Exotica fan, you should not (dis)miss this album; I am going to tell you why.


It is hot, it is somewhat bucolic, it is definitely inebriated and it is a mirage from the desert: the opener Maharimba takes place in midtempo climes at a thriving oasis. Co-written with trumpeter Jules Chaikin, this tune features Joe Procaro's whiplash-evoking and elastically warped Space-Age drums of the brazen kinds, Tommy Tedesco's guitar strings charged with a back alley rusticity as well as Emil Richard's xylophone and marimba droplets. The result is a mess, but a quirky, euphonious, simply stunning mess, with the layers being seemingly incompatible with each other but still somehow able to merge and permeate the looming presence. Lots of clicks, blebs and crunches are tied together by the psychedelic guitar accompaniment, the only place of stasis and peacefulness.


The final electronic organ shards (or dark matter harpsichord molecules?) lead to the auspicious Bliss, a marker of the things to come on side B. This tune of almost five minutes features Richard's same prowess on the mallet instruments, but is accentuated by much warmer and harmonic guitar chords, fluttering bongos, raunchy tuba spirals as well as a purposefully dissonant harmonica. The tempo is rapidly firing, the sizzling shakers and hi-hats underline the whirling maelstrom of galactic splinters and electronic devices. Portuguese tonalities coalesce with an Oriental waltz in the jungle… on steroids. The multi-faceted physiognomy of Bliss works all the better due to its relatively long runtime, the only negative thing being its sudden fade-out phase. It is comparably demanding and willfully over the top, but lures the skilled Exotica listener with its textures, short-lived alcoves and dry-aqueous state of dualism.


Mantra resides in the same uplifting realms, but is decidedly more funky and even humorous. The opening phase is already enchanting: delicate bongo rhythms are intertwined with liquedous-jungular xylophone airflows, Dennis Budimir's reduced but skillful backing melody on the guitar, Mike Craden's revved up shaker apparitions as well as Dave Mackay's silkened harpsichord helixes. While there is a strong Free Jazz aspect to Mantra with an even stronger focus on improvisations and eclectic sections, its polyphony and melodies are the actual trademarks, the latter not necessarily being catchy per se, but the unison of the partaking instrumentalists adheres an overarching jolliness to the crunchy coils and sunlit sprouts.


The final piece of side A, the hot Enjoy, Enjoy, delivers more of the same xylophone-kindled Sahara sunbursts. However, it features a much denser and varied percussion placenta with bongos, congas, frizzling hi-hats, pipes, bamboo rods and Ray Neapolitan's bass blebs. Emil Richard's xylophone is used as both a percussive and a melodious device, with Dennis Budimir's monotonous guitar twangs being awash with sunlight. Whatever segue is running, the Microtonal Blues Band makes sure that the percussion is always upfront and prominently in the limelight. The bleepy harpsichord is tastefully wonky, and even though the gongs at the end seem to be out of place, they skillfully foreshadow what is to be unchained on side B.


Thus spoke Emil Richards: "There is a river running through me." The six-part Journey To Bliss has reserved side B all for itself and is an aquatic-moist psychedelic Exotica suite of the Middle Eastern kind. It is the real deal of the ornate album, a remark I tend to drop whenever a long piece crosses the paths of the very genre that is loaded with pieces of the two minutes range. Here we have a piece that lives up to the prospects of its title. Co-written with Barbara Gess, Journey To Bliss bursts at the seams. Part I is chock-full of gongs, features arabesques of music box melodies, otherworldly marimbas, a kaleidoscope of glockenspiels and flecks of Space-Age mystique. Most importantly though, Part I establishes the vortex which floats through the other incarnations. Once the tribal bongo beat and gamelan chimes enter the scenery, the feeling of being adrift in that river only grows. Richards' mantra-like prayers or statements are full congruent with the erected strata of bells. There are graspable melodies on here, but they are not particularly noteworthy; it is once again the union of these crystalline sparkles that causes a coruscating aura of wondrousness and positive languor. Part II sees the structure improved with warm rhythm guitars that mesh with the xylophone sprinkles of all timbres. "Warm and gentle and smooth and slow we go," according to Emil Richards. Whereas Part I floated along, Part II introduces a labyrinthine rhythmic pattern that is tremendously hypnotic and alienating, but in a comforting way.


Part III is then all about a "silky brown sand" and much more Ambient-focused, exchanging the plinking clangs and twinkling iridescence of the aforementioned parts with ethereal Chinese gongs and Tommy Tedesco's sitar licks whose decay flows into the glowing quiescence of the reverberated gongs. This is indeed a very blissful state, the heat of the sun is perceptible, the constant, much slower susurration of the gongs and chimes improves the mellowness, no bongo beat is ever attached. Part IV then ventures into faux-African fields and would not be entirely out of place in Tony Scott's African Bird: Come Back! Mother Africa (1984). The beat pattern is once again mesmerizing, an added bass guitar in tandem with saxophone bursts successfully integrates with the downwards cascading xylophone waves. It is the jazziest part of them all.


Journey To Bliss Parts V and VI are merged into one track of five minutes and finish Emil Richards' journey. Now being the river himself, his last installment is streaming in fluxion full of gorgeous djembe and bongo rhythms, sitar licks, cheekily incongruous Space-Age splinters and all chimes, bells, whistles and gongs of the transcendental world. Journey To Bliss winds down in a surprisingly Surf Rock-oriented fashion with catchy sitar riffs – the catchiest ones of the whole album! – and a rather cool entanglement of all previously featured ingredients, ending the album with a swelling legato crescendo that is as far away from the soothing paradise of Part III as the whole composition is from classic Jazz arrangements.


Journey To Bliss is the trippiest Exotica work anyone can find, that is if people are willed to count it as an exotic work, and why shouldn't they? Bongos, djembes, sitars and a mallet instrument extravaganza altogether create a flurry of dazzling sunbeams coming right out of its aural nucleus, bursting into colorful melodies of yellow-ranged timbres. This is a psychedelic masterpiece that is potentially hard to swallow due to its convoluted tone sequences, ever-changing patterns and spiraling notes… but if these are already hard to grasp, never consider Emil Richard's aforementioned true Space-Age album Stones! What Stones lacks – on purpose – in these fields, Journey To Bliss delivers in the compartment of textures and timbres. Emil Richards and his Microtonal Blues Band inject a boldly Oriental feeling, one which is never murky, shady or danger-evoking. Instead, an amicable mystique wafts through the desert panoramas.


While side A features four benign, bustling and bubbling compositions, side B launches the innermost journey which leads to an out-of-body experience. A contradiction? No, for the journey is a gradual one which comprises the most thunderously hectic phases and mooniest ambiences of the album. Since it is divided into six phases, Journey To Bliss (the suite) never becomes boring, even though it shares many textures, rhythms and other characteristics with the first four tracks. Exotica fans who have heard plenty of Polynesian-flavored LP's and one too many Far Eastern works should definitely check out Journey To Bliss – it is one of a kind, a psychedelic Third-Stream Space-Age Exotica work. Its only flaw could potentially be the spoken mantras of Emil Richards, for these diminish the power of the otherwise wordless arrangements, but this is nit-picking. As stated before, Journey To Bliss has thankfully been re-issued in 2012 as a two-for-one CD with Stones. A download version is available as well.


Exotica Review 222: Emil Richards – Journey To Bliss (1968). Originally published on Jun. 1, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.