The Divine Flaw – Nandan Gautam (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

In an earlier time, those seeking to describe Nandan Gautam’s music would have simply have labelled it “world music” and moved on. But what does that even mean? It’s a term which takes in everything from recordings of traditional Balkan folk singers played at middle class dinner parties to muddy, outdoor musical festivals made up of artists from all corners of the world. The reality is that the former is too niche an example, the latter too broad. Music found on The Divine Flaw is indeed world music – because it is an example of music with a global scope, which echoes with the sounds of various cultures clashing creatively, genres been merged, musical boundaries being leapt or merely ignored. It is music which merges technical worlds too, with the acoustic and the digital being woven together effortlessly, and which strikes a balance between the underground and possibly slightly indulgent (to the mainstream’s ears) and the addictive and easily accessible (perhaps too easily accessible for the cult music collectors liking.)

Almost eighty minutes long, The Divine Flaw is a complex musical world which Nandan Gautam creates; yet it is a world of gorgeous musical textures and beguiling, otherworldly sounds unlike anything you would usually find on the pop charts. This is music of the long game rather than the quick hit. Then again, most of the best music is. Interestingly, it is also the second companion album designed to accompany Gautam’s genre-bending metaphysical novel from which its predecessor, The King of the Sea takes its name.

The Divine Flaw is based more around message than the lyric, music which tells its tales through mood and emotion more often than through the direct communication of words. And even when there is a vocal line it is more often a voice being used as an instrument, either subjected to deliberate abstraction or positioned and treated in such a way that it adds feeling rather than narration. For an album written around inner states and internal struggles, which deals with personal challenges and also with the silence and seclusion found in meditation, it makes sense that the listener should be left to find their own meaning. 

The title track is a good place to start musically speaking, an eleven and a half minute suite of sounds wandering between the primal and the ambient, the soaring and the soulful, between the sound of ancient lands and the buzz of hip, jazz modernity. There are times when parts of the album feel improvised, times when it feels well-rehearsed and pre-structured and this is one of the tracks which wanders between the two. Another merging of musical worlds and a seemingly effortless one at that.

Following track, The Endless Journey quickly reminds you that this is a modern gathering of musicians and the music heads off into jazz-rock territory but without losing the inherent mysticism that the vocals bring and delivering fragility and power in equal measure and often oddly in the same beat. And if you were in any doubt of the subtle blends of modernity and classic sounds found here, a reminder comes as part two drives off on an unexpected dance floor beat. Flying mixes infectious hooks, more straightforward structures and a rare set of discernible lyrics, reflective and delivered in a hypnotic, lulling way. There Once Was A Captain is a title which conjures interesting thoughts even before the melancholic music drifts through the space.

In an album of standout musicianship there are a number of highlights. The Forsaken is a masterclass in rhythmic drumming with Antonio Sanchez’s drums taking centre stage. If you find the idea of a drum solo pointless, The Forsaken is a song that will change your mind. Similarly Rainier Brüninghaus’s cascading and inventive piano lines on The Legacy of Judas piano engage with the listener most.

The album winds up with Enter the Godhead, another long, lazy, drifting, jazz-infused haze, a blend of cutting edge keyboards and soundscaping vocals often held together by an inexplicably chirpy piano line and drum beat, but we already know that this is an album where opposites not only attract but pre-create into new sounds and sensations so we shouldn’t be surprised at such musical juxtaposition. Forget surf rock, this is Sufi rock!

They say that you can tell a lot about someone by the company that they keep and Nandan Gautum finds himself in very good company indeed. Names such as  Grammy award winner and composer Antonio Sanchez (drummer with Pat Metheny), Rainer Brüninghaus (pianist with Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek) Tom Schuman (keyboardist/composer with multi million album selling pop jazz group Spyro Gyra) and Chad Wackerman (drummer with the late Allan Holdsworth and Frank Zappa) should tell you all you need to know about the rarefied musical state that this album was composed in. Most artists would be happy with such a gathering of the great and good, but Nandan’s powers of persuasion don’t stop there.

Tony Das, one of India’s best rock guitarists, plays a gut wrenching but incendiary guitar solo on Legacy of Judas. Ex- Berklee, LA jazz fusion guitarist Amit Heri, provides the solo on the opening salvo weaving his supple sonics through the sounds of the east and Ananth Menon can be found wielding a mean blues guitar, soloing over the electronic dance beat on Endless Journey. Last, but certainly not least, Sabir Memmedov casts a folk tinged spell each time his clarinet appears on the album.

If you were a fan of The King of the Sea then you will find lots to love here. If you like your music erring to the side of jazz, the progressive, the gently post-rock, the ambient and the cinematic, again this is for you. But more than that it is music with a message. The clever thing is the message is pretty much what you choose to find here. It’s a maze of obviously amazing music but lyrically you are on your own, for the main part, and how much you get out of the album will really depend on how deep you wish to explore it. And this is a deep album.

Let me draw a line connecting mystical Asian traditions with ambient electronic music, another from chilled sophisticated urban jazz clubs to the rural musical ritual, a third linking soaring post-rock gigs with the quiet of a single soul at meditation and then many more connecting places and thoughts, music and stories that have no business being connected. Stare at the pattern of the lines for a long time, and then shut your eyes. The stars dancing behind your eyelids is the music of this group of outstanding musicians.

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