Vienna’s Bird People continue their journey to the heart of the inner universe with this shamanic zonkfest on the great Eiderdown Records label. Last year’s Constellations on Was Ist Das? was a wonderfully twilit swirl, capable of freezing linear time into an eternal moment of dusky, wide-eyed wonder, but this is even better, with four extended raga tapestries containing enough mystical resonance to open up as many portals to the eternal as you care to wish for. Bandleader Uli Rois has bulked out his lineup from the trio that birthed Constellations, with Réka Kutas and Steffi Neuhuber joining Roy Cuthbertson III and Lucas Henao Serna this time around. Together, the band deploys an arsenal of instruments – lap steel guitar, electric bass, cello, fiddle, sitar, shruti box, gong, percussion, bansuri, alto sax – creating gauzy waves of sound that carry their keening hymnals aloft.
That said, the heavy presence of so many psych-drone signifiers – circling sitar figures, wafts of breathy bansuri, long bowed cello tones – may cause skeptical listeners to fear a kind of exoticized indulgence exerting itself. And in the wrong hands, Rois’s mix of hippyish seeking and Asian instrumentation could easily descend into privileged pastiche, like an all-star jam at George Harrison’s mansion after a few too many tokes from the chalice. Fortunately, Rois, as he proved with Constellations, is pretty sure footed, and his band too show communal focus that keeps Down of The Hamsa on an even keel. And while restraint is not a word often associated with the psych crowd, Rois and crew show a laudable wariness of going over the top. In particular, the arid soundfield of Flight of the Hamsa gives Rois a way of taking psychedelia’s promises to task, its ominous gong thrums and fiddle swoops dropping us into a narcotic stillness that’s far from the esoteric lushness of the cuts coming later on. Not so much meditation as medicated paralysis, its sparse eeriness evokes images of Bobby De Niro in the opium den in Once Upon A Time In America, each second a lifetime, or William Burroughs in Tangier, almost comatose, a month spent staring at his big toe.
It also helps that Bird People eschew the shroomy goofiness that mars many psyched-inclined records, aiming instead for a lysergic sincerity that provides coherence to his blending of instruments and traditions. This is highlighted in the three parts of On The Lake at Sunrise, which comprise the bulk of the release, the ensemble deploying a shifting vocabulary of tones – the haunting bansuri melodies and alto sax of Part 1 slowly replaced by circling fiddle and sitar figures in Parts 2 and 3 – all given coherence by the bedrock of cello, shruti box and bowed cymbal underpinning the whole piece. Like the sun rising slowly over the water, it has a momentum that is as gradual as it is unstoppable. It’s ritualistic, sure, but as those final beatific sitar melodies fade into the air, even the most grounded materialists must surely admit to feeling psychically replenished by its healing sonic molecules.