Approaching a review of this album it is probably wise not to consult the press release beforehand, containing, as it does, such phrases as ‘mutual sustenance’ and ‘vital interaction’. A picture of a skinny woman clutching an acoustic guitar with a sticker of a whale on it doesn’t help dispel the visions of mung bean yoga hippies. Before I start sounding like Jeremy Clarkson I’d just like to point out that there’s nothing wrong with that, but an awful lot of atrocious music has arisen out of those particular furrows, usually involving “ethnic” thumb piano and hemp dungarees! Much as R Zak may reflect all those things and more besides, the reflections here are somehow more transformative than white bare footed rasta-headed didgeridoo players would have you believe. Occasionally R Zak does fall victim to the authentic bongo hitting folk droning, especially towards the back end of this album, but in places this becomes an elevated cathartic experience that is more than the sum of its parts.
“Villanelle” is the kind of dark ‘Wicker man’ folk that summons ancient forces in dark wood copses and cures ailments, with its insistent floor tom tarantellas and ritualistic carousel guitar. Simple but beautifully effective, a (naked) danceable “Fotheringay”. “The White Birds” has a soft metronomic pad and moog bass line underlying a soaring reverb drenched vocal singing about flames and dew and being changed into white birds. Again it is transformative, swooping high and low, from the air to the ground below, that is just the right amount of dark and shade. “Silver Slow Moving”, with its shimmering guitar and sprightly drum and bass has a folky ‘as I walked out one morning’ vibe to it, and “Caracola” (conch shell or snail) is a slow and stately song sung in Spanish, underpinned with the natural sounds of crickets, drifting uneasily like smoke. In her press blurb she states that she was heavily influenced by a Spanish hymn book called Cantigas De Santa Maria, and this may explain the Spanish influence here.
“Les Silhouettes”, despite having some lovely synth noises drifting in and out, sounds more traditional folk, with a too obvious vocal tuning giving it a fake edge, but it flows very nicely, while “Paisaje” (scenery) sounds vocally the same but with much more rhythm, giving it a sweet tribal edge, although it is also disjointed and feels somewhat empty. “Atomic Elegy” is the obvious highlight of this album to me, with a pounding drum machine beat, over which a Kate Bush style vocal paints echoed colours on a repetitive electronic palette. It has some beautiful touches, especially the ending guitar picking, which finishes out a gorgeous piece. “Reading The Sunflowers In September” has some fine arpeggiated synth bass lending a dreamlike quality to an already dreamy song which tumbles and falls like a slow waterfall of sound, tickling the ears with colour. The rest of the album doesn’t quite match up to all of this gloriousness though, having an unfinished demo like quality to the rest of the songs here. From “Winonas Aria”, with its drifting formlessness, “Dewy Dreams” is a forgettable folk tune badly recorded from a cassette, and ditto “Secrets That Are Not”, which at best sounds a little like Nico. “Twilight Turns” also seems to lack any kind of focus. The best of these is “El Lagarto Esta Llorando”, a lovely shimmery descending keyboard and minimal Spanish singing colour an otherwise quite lacklustre cod reggae beat. So here we have 8 wonderful songs that shimmer like a Rousseau painting, followed by what sound like a few out-takes…and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all many re-releases of classic albums throw a few scraps in at the end for collectors.
R Zak is more of a painter than a musician. She dabs here and there, and other times great swathes of colour fill your head. She paints another world for you to inhabit and colours it with intricate backgrounds. No matter where you look there is always something going on. From the vivid cover art to the intricate production there is a world you can walk into and feel at peace. Bloody hippy!
Dialectics is out now – stream on Spotify.
Follow R Zak on Instagram.