Some artistry can be so different, so entrancing, and so lush that delving into it can be both mesmerizing and perplexing. That’s certainly the case with Houston’s favorite experimental psych group Ak’chamel. I’ve always assumed that anyone who sees a live performance from this band will either walk away mystified or simply won’t get it at all. The sometimes two-piece, sometimes five-piece is a lot to take in for the average concert goer, and that’s the point. On their new album Death Chants, Ak’chamel takes us further down the rabbit hole of their universe while offering up a mix of ghostly mysticism and dark beauty to create one of the most interesting pieces of work you will probably ever hear. Released through Brooklyn’s Already Dead Tapes and Records, the 13-track album is like a dark spirit quest through the hellish depths of the Eastern side of the world.
The opener, “You Destroy Your Heart on Earth,” begins with dark chants that sound almost like a group of shaman moaning in unison during a healing ritual. Though occasionally a stark bell is played, the track sounds like a field recording from a film about a lost civilization. While the track closes with a mix of brass instrumentation, the darkness of the track cannot be lost on anyone who hears it. When the second track, “Life Is Not For Me,” begins, it’s a stark guitar that gently strums while a wind instrument faintly blows alongside. Soon enough, cymbals come crashing in and a chorus of vocals triumphantly make their way into the mix. The magic behind the songs Ak’chamel creates is that you feel almost intrusive listening to them, as if you’ve stumbled, uninvited, into a room where a sacred ceremony is taking place. The vocals don’t sound like English, but closer to the wailing of souls in transition between this life and the next. Those far away chants continue into the next song, the dense and airy “Spit On The Sky.” Like a tragedy has just occurred, the ominous tone of the song is faint and indistinct while carrying elements that would sound joyful if they were sped up half a step.
The chaotic opening of “The Tragedy of Birth” sounds like a speeding train careening by, where the band uses wind instruments and strings — as well as possibly synths — to create a fevered opening. The riff of cymbals clashing together while a mix of faint vocals and strings make their own heavy mixture underneath is strange but not without merit. When the song feels like it’s coming to an end, that fervent pace speeds up, now with more strings and brass instrumentation, like the song is being played in a house being torn apart by a tornado. When those vocal chants return, they have a more apocalyptic feel. The song then folds back in on itself, ending in a haze of feedback and ambiance. While the group returns to the Eastern-stringed sounds of their previous efforts on “Give Me Your Ancestor,” it’s the more Western sounds of “Hearts Melt In Horror (and knees will shake)” that grabs hold of your attention. What has always intrigued me about the music Ak’chamel makes is that it feels simultaneously organic and chaotic, familiar yet from another place and time. This might be their most engaged track on the album. The jazz influence, the chaotic drums, the deathly laughs in the background, are all brought together by an orchestral chant and a singular-stringed instrument, sounding like a deathly film about Western expansion.
While the band gets trippy on the next track, “The Skull Spat Upon The Maiden’s Hand,” the following song, “The Boar,” reminds one of their past leanings, sounding like transmissions coming from another space. The very slight percussive and stringed instrumentation used in the song sounds almost like they’re performing in the remoteness of a Siberian forest. The nomadic and tribal nature of the track reminds you that even though this group is from Houston, they can take you to faraway places very quickly. This dissonance continues on the dark and ritualistic sounds of “Death Chant.” There’s a subtle bell that comes on and off of the track, while group vocals that sound like that of spiritual leaders singing to the heavens keep the pace of the track going. Like most of the band’s music, this track really sounds like one that is a glimpse into someone else’s world. The ethereal ending of the track takes the early, more rhythmic sounds of the band and meets them with a more heavenly sound that is like nothing else.
Three tracks later, the group takes things darker than ever before on “He Who Hung The Earth.” The mix of distorted guitar, ominous vocals, and the slow stride of the drum sounds almost demonic. Or in the least, it sounds caliginous to the point of it being more frightening than most of the tracks on the album. Death Chants ends as it began, with a whole new sound from the band on “Hammering a Nail Into Space.” As close as this group comes to a mainstream sound, the celestial sounds of the synths alongside a softer and more divine vocal creates a proper ending to another mysterious release from the band. There’s no real way to wrap your head around what Ak’chamel does, and perhaps that’s the point. Ak’chamel is the most intriguing and interesting group I’ve seen perform in the past twenty years, and Death Chants is just another glimpse into a world that we may never understand. If music is meant to take the listener to another place, then Ak’chamel has definitely achieved that with this album.
You can purchase “Death Chants” from Already Dead Tapes and Records, or grab your own copy from the band in person when they perform next on July 17 at Hotel Vegas in Austin. The show, with doors at 9 pm, will also feature sets from Dead Recipe and Panama Grant with a $5 cover.