Formed in 1993 in Richmond, Virgiania, Pelt are unique amongst (post) psychedielic drone bands because of their predominantly acoustic sound. Theirs is a twenty-first century indigenous music, tribal and universal. They are aboriginal shamans of the global village, the creators of a timeless music that leaves you wondering whether they are people of the present day or time-travelling magicians from four thousand years ago.
Ayahuasca, considered by many to be their finest studio recording, is dedicated to the late John Fahey, a musician whose sound defies any attempts at pigeon-holing but which has been described as bluegrass, blues, folk, avant-garde and ambient. Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth's guitarist, acknowledges him as a "secret influence". Ayahuasca, it has been said, attempts to create a music "bridging John Fahey, Grateful Dead, Ravi Shankar and LaMonte Young " (quoted from http://www.scaruffi.com/vol5/pelt.html). Many would call this an overly-ambitious goal, but so over-achieving are these archaic revivalists that they attain it with apparent effortlessness.
Ayahuasca, a word which translates as "vine of the dead" or "vine of souls", is a hallucinogenic brew used by South American shamans. It can be made from a variety of plants but is usually made from a combination of the bark of a vine known as Banisteriopsis caapi (which can grow to be over 100 metres long and a ton in weight) and the leaves of a plant called Psychotria viridis: "The origins of ayahuasca are very old; it has a tradition of use which predates written records. It is part of both the ancient religions and the healing customs of people who live throughout the Amazon area, from Brazil to the upper areas of Columbia, Equator and Peru. Many studies have been reported on its use in shamanism, and especially in healing rituals. Sadly, many of the people who have defined the culture there are today being disenfranchised as second-class citizens because they lack both Western language and political representation. No, it is worse than that. In the opinion of most South Americans, the native Indians are filthy, stupid and lazy, and are certainly holding up progress." (Alexander Shulgin, Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved, pp.286-7) The decision to name this album "Ayahuasca" is not simply a statement about psychedelics and shamanism, but also a political statement.
It kicks off with True Vine, a primal, bassy, resonant drone with a higher-toned string instrument winding eastern, call-to-prayer melodies through it. Plucked strings vibrate bassily. This is a serpentine, undulating sound, dream-like, natural, organic. It makes me think of sunrise over Turkish cityscapes, of tribal ayahuasca ceremonies deep in the shady secrecy of the Amazon: "The experience of ingesting ayahuasca... has a number of characteristics... Its themes and hallucinations are oriented toward the organic and the natural world... [including] extremely rich tapestries of visual hallucination that are particularly susceptible to being 'driven' and directed by sound, especially vocally produced sound. Consequently, one of the legacies of the ayahuasca-using cultures is a large repository of 'icaros', or magical songs... In the actual curing sessions, both patient and healer ingest ayahuasca and the singing of the magical songs is a shared experience that is largely visual." (Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods, pp. 227-8) This album is a collection of such icaros, and the air hangs thick with rippling curtains of pulsating vision. The melody is indescribably beautiful, filled with a longing, a yearning, winding like the hypnotic dance of a jewelled, hallucinatory serpent or the prolific snaking growth of jungle vines. It gives me the feeling I get when I sit around the camp fire with old friends. It stirs something ancient in my soul, an ancestral wisdom.
Deer Head Apparition is less tuneful, a discordant, scratchy drone, deeply hypnotic, entrancing, enchanting, lacking the melodies of True Vine. Huge, unsettling, powerful bass notes tear through it. It has a dry feel, like dead wood. This aboriginal sound speaks to the most ancient part of your humanity, to your hunter-gatherer soul. It is animalistic, wordless, speaking to the parts of you that have no words. This is such a primitive form of expression that humans must have been creating music like this for as long as we have walked the Urth. The tones are not of a constant pitch but bend slightly, slowly, like the deep lowing song of the cow.
After just under quarter of an hour of this fayre the drone suddenly drops away, exposing a dark, vast, echoing space that rumbles and shivers to the foreground. Insect voices chatter and whisper feverishly. Indeed, it has all the unreality of a fever-dream, your glistening brow burning chillingly. It intensifies, a chaos of pounding hoofbeats, loud crashing sounds, the occasional bright bell lost in the darkness.
Eventually this rattling tempest calms to a drone reminiscent of the end of Queen Elizabeth's Tal-y-fan, hanging eternally, shining slightly. It sounds like the marshes at night, the air thick with swamp-gases and fog, will-o-the-wisps wandering alluringly, the ground steaming. High toned plucked strings sound restlessly, bending, repetitive. Bassier movements slither beneath. The bowed strings return, painting a tense, jumpy atmosphere. As it builds shadowy giants shudder and heave, unseen, a sound reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth's Callanish but with strings and ancient, droning horns. Finally it fades like a brooding thundercloud. A long silence follows.
The Cuckoo and Deep Sunny South are very different from the first two tracks. They are traditional Appalachian folk songs, the music of North America's indigenous people. Don't let the word "folk" scare you, though - this isn't the morris-dancing, elbow-swaying, tired, cliched modern English folk music that is summoned to mind by that word. This is folk music in its truest sense - the songs of the people, the songs that are basic to being human. Folk music in the Bob Marley & Bob Dylan sense of the word (though lacking, obviously, the unique geniuses of the two mighty Bobs). It also reminds me of certain songs by Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Guitar and banjo, played with an impressive musicianship, create a psychedelic tapestry of sound, bowed strings sounding softly within it. The melodies are simple, the sort of tunes that appeal to everybody because they are an integral part of our humanity. The lyrics are hard to make out: I have given up trying to decipher The Cuckoo, though Deep Sunny South is a love-song to the land and a war-song about defending the land. Although these are American songs, this is a music beyond any one nation that can speak to people from all over the world. It is rural, rustick, a musick of ancestry, roots and belonging.
The final track on the first CD, Raga Called John pt. 1, is the first of this album's three pieces paying tribute to John Fahey. The raga is an Indian musical form, the name being derived from the sanskrit words "raga", meaning both "colour" and "passion", and "ranj", meaning "to colour". A raga is a piece of music that tries to "colour the mind of the listener with an emotion" (quoted from http://www.chandrakantha.com/articles/indian_music/raga.html) - this music is trying to colour your mind with the energy of John Frehey, capturing his soul's vibration in sound.
It starts serenely with both bowed and plucked strings. It feels like a carefree sunny meadow, flower-heads nodding in the sleepy breeze. The acoustic guitar is a warm weft of golden strings, sweeter than honey, gentler than a lamb, stronger than the Sun. As it develops its tempo increases, a simple, foot-stomping drum beat driving it ever faster. This is the music to which the flower goddess (Blo) dances, blooming blossoms flowering at her feet. The guitars eventually fade and the bowed strings take over, introducing discordant elements. It sounds like the most beautiful flower that you never-did-see (except in your dreams) slowly opening, unfolding. The plucked strings return, playing single notes and simple, repetitive melodies that gradually build into a whirling Siva-dance, sparks flying. A temple-bell occasionally rings purely. This music has the intensity and heat of the August Sun, the plucked strings hopping and jumping as though they were dancing on hot coals, firewalking.
The second CD begins with The Dream of the Leaping Sharks. The bowed strings begin tentatively, as if testing the water, only to eventually rush in like a shadow falling across the land. None of the strings are constantly sounding - they come in silky slivers. A thick, exotic sound like the smell of spice or of marijuana, incense burning in a Hindu temple. The sound is primitive and Urthy, rumbling from the deepest belly of the ground beneath your feet. There is a sorrowful feeling in it. Ancient, wise, knowing; strong, deep, dark. Purple satin throbbing with deep blues. Hot as the desert. Exotic as the Bedouin. Shimmering with heat haze. After just over quarter of an hour the drone becomes more harmonious, warm light enveloping you like an embrace. But it is not long before the darker atmosphere returns, only to slip away slowly, endlessly fading, falling.
Bear Head Apparition begins unsettlingly, stuttering unpredictably. A bell ringing over a throbbing bass synth, a darkness, boundless, expansive, echoing, rattling, shifting, unquiet. The raw scream of a feedbacking guitar unfolds discordantly, tunelessly from within it. A disorienting, almost nauseous sound. In some respects it is machine-like, mighty cogs turning, the ancient ethereal machinery that underlies reality. A sound like the lurching Urth torn away from beneath me, a gaping hole swallowing me. Falling, falling endlessly, the violence of stone tearing apart beneath me, rotating all around me, crashing closed behind me.
Will You Pray For Me? is a bright, high-toned bowed string sound with incredibly fast plucked strings. There is a sound in it that could be a human voice, but that could also be a bronze-age hunting horn. Someone is singing a song deep down in it, but the vocal is so drowned as to be unintelligible, mysterious, the softness giving it a chant-like quality. This has the atmosphere of sunrise or sunset, the twilight times, the gates between night and day, between the worlds.
Raga Called John pt. 2 is a lot like True Vine, the slow, deep drone wound with mystic, serpentine melodies. A drone as thick as primal soup, swamping all. The melodies are deliberately soft so as to be drowned in the droning miasma. It is filled with the slow, majestic strength of the Urth, entrancing enough to charm even the fearful world-serpent of Norse myth. The dark, scratching string tones weigh down my thought processes, the primal soup swamping my brain like treacle. Slower, slower they crawl. Eternities fill every passing moment and still the moment stretches out longer, slower... Finally all thought ceases and I have escaped time. Amazingly, just at this moment the music flowers into sweetness, the rumbling, unsettling bass giving way to rich, warm mid-tones. Plucked strings dance gently, blowing through it like a sparkling peaceful breeze. The darkness soon resurfaces, however, welling up like a flood of Indian ink, more frenzied this time, tense with pent in power that burns and smoulders within. The scratchier strings and distorted guitars, melded into one sound that transcends the individual instruments, sound like the tearing of the walls between the worlds. It develops into all-out screeching, but smooth, the scream of the motors driving your shamanic flight as they are strained to the limit. The sound rises and falls, engine-like, and there is the occasional Doppler effect as some giant object whirls past. The thundering sound of rocket-propulsion, huge distorted guitar explosions bursting, thrusting behind me, a hurtling power.
Between Raga Called John pt. 2 and pt. 3 there is a short interlude, a fragment of folky jamming with guitar and banjo, the musicians talking to one another, working the song out. This brief fly-on-the-wall moment ends with the words "shut that fucking door, man", and Raga Called John pt. 3 begins.
This is a sparser string drone with sitar-like accoustic guitars. It is a golden sound with a carefree, rustick feel, swallows swooping through it, diving in swirling spirals. The dappled, patterned sound slowly builds up speed, gaining momentum, a dancer spinning faster, faster, until a peak of frenzy is reached and the sound slowly calms and smooths. This is music of the Sun seen through heat haze, a sound like a magickal garden filled with the rich perfume of honeysuckle, clematis, peacocks strutting vainly, their tails as colourful and shining as precious stones. It is in this beautiful, dreaming place that the album draws to a close.
Reviewed by AlkMyst