“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.” So claimed Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism, his exploration of how colonialism and imperialism impacted on the English and French novel across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. By this logic, Nick Carlisle of retro electro synth-botherers Peepholes and Rachel Horwood of primal post punks Trash Kit were never destined to sit quietly and contently in their genre pigeonholes for their entire musical careers. But their new project Bamboo doesn’t feel like a side-project mixing elements of their respective bands together, it feels like a fully-formed statement that stands apart from their other works.
Recorded over the course of a year between their London and Brighton base camps, Prince Pansori Priestess not only has a name that sounds Far Eastern but embraces the musical traditions of Korea at almost every level. Pansori is a traditional form of Korean musical storytelling that uses both a singer and someone playing a traditional buk drum. Though it declined in popularity in the 20th century due to westernisation and a stronger presence from the Japanese government, it was named as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003 and interest in the tradition both practically and on a scholarly level has increased since. It’s a curiously complex form of storytelling that uses variations in melody, tone and rhythmic structure to add layers of emotion and multiple characters to the narrative.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that listening to Prince Pansori Priestess is like trying to tap into a number of different cultural and narrative layers that don’t reveal themselves all at once. Despite this, it all starts off relatively familiarly. ‘Auroch’ bears the hallmarks of a typical R&B song and Carlisle’s synths create a luscious and deep soundscape. But using asynchronous acoustic drums and even the banjo within the song helps to set up that this isn’t a typical synthpop record; it’s challenging but not all at once. The relative accessibility of ‘Auroch’ eases the listener into some of the more experimental concepts that flourish more throughout the record.
‘Stone’ explores the nature of pansori a bit more deeply. Repeating only a couple of lines throughout the song, Horwood and Carlisle create a shifting emotional stance by mixing organic and electronic elements that are constantly changing tone, even very minimally. The effect is undoubtedly mystical, and the more Rachel repeats her two lines it begins to sound more and more like a hypnotic mantra, drawing you further and further into Bamboo’s regal world. On ‘Hexagonal’ the duo sound at their most traditionally ‘western,’ drawing on folk and using cycling waves of sound. It almost evokes Kate Bush on The Ninth Wave with its mix of slightly icy production yet warm instrumentation; Horwood also sounds at her most comforting here, lending the track a cosy feel.
For the album’s centrepiece the duo chose to record their own version of ‘Sangokushi Love Theme.’ It was originally written by Haruomi Hosono of Yellow Magic Orchestra, originally formed by Hosono as a one-off exploration of electronic exotica but now often considered innovators in the genre (the trio boast Ryuichi Sakamoto as a member, which in itself says much). Keeping the lyrics in their native Japanese helps to take away some of the sickliness of the song, counteracting Horwood’s girlish falsetto. But Bamboo also give the song a distinctly imperial, Noh Theatre vibe in the instrumentation, employing some of the heaviest synths on the record and a smattering of brass that lends the ballad some much needed weight. The overall result is a cover version that sounds like a lost song from Angelo Badalamenti’s mind, written after a revealing trip to Tokyo.
From there the album drifts between kinetic energy and ambient soundscapes almost consistently; ‘On Bohol’ may well be the most traditionally ‘pop’ song on the record, thanks to its constant forward propulsion and a curiously catchy chorus that sits above an analogue drone. On the other hand, ‘Be Brothers’ takes its time to establish a sense of vulnerability, holding back on synth squall to allow Horwood and the banjo to take centre stage. At least for a little while. About halfway through the track the tempo begins to pick up and the percussion becomes distinctly more noisy. And because this is the year of the sax, Verity Susman of Electralane turns up to play a strange blast of almost-funk that comes out of nowhere.
But that’s pretty much Prince Pansori Priestess in a nutshell. It doesn’t much care that it’s not mainstream and while it toys with pop and R&B, it never fully embraces either genre. Indeed, trying to fit the album into any kind of category is a supremely difficult task thanks to Carlisle and Horwood’s embracing of the pansori tradition in their synthpop. Instead, it’s an album where it’s best to accept that this is a constantly shifting and evolving work that’s both deep and effortless.
Prince Pansori Priestess is out now on Upset the Rhythm.