Out There

Electronica meets Judaica

The Covenant
Wally Brill
Island Records

The idea of mixing old and new is only slightly less obvious than the peanut butter/chocolate pairing that so revolutionized confectionary science. This is why--musically--so much of that hybrid breed (certain types of new age music, Enigma, and any non-liturgical chanting) looks better on paper than it sounds.

The Covenant is a striking exception. Inspired by producer Wally Brill's chance encounter with old 78 RPM records of Hebrew cantors, this dense, multi-textual but highly listenable album takes those soaring messages and weaves around them electronic rhythms, live instrumentation, spoken words, and found sounds.

The first track--"Kiddush Le-Shabbat," based on that traditional Friday-night blessing--is typical. First comes the huff and purr of the didgeridoo, joined by the loping skip of the tabla. Then comes the transcendental wail of the cantor, thick with the same mystical passion that echoes in northern Indian religious music, Qawwali; in the Islamic muezzin's call; and in the most inspired opera. The melody is then reflected by the soulful glide of an old-world violin. The effect is to take Eastern Europe and superimpose it on desert sands, just as Brill overlays elements of electronic composition over ancient sounds and rhythms.

The voices from the cantors on the old 78s--alive in the present yet from a dead world--run through The Covenant like a connecting thread. On "Rtzeh (We Pray)" the vocal is of astounding potency, proof that passion and life force are what turn sound and rhythm into music. Raging like a gale-force wind, the singing is augmented by ringing electric guitar chords that seem puny in comparison. "Rubadubatavo" sets an operatic vocal against a partially deconstructed reggae beat that accumulates electronic beeps and growls until it sounds almost like dub. On "A Typical Day," Auschwitz survivor Helen Lazar describes her 12-year-old self searching for the rest of her family and being told by a Nazi woman to look at a tall chimney. "See the smoke coming out?" Lazar tells us the woman asked. "Probably your mother." In reply a heavily treated guitar suddenly begins to uncoil, writhing beneath a cruelty so complete--and an evil so total--that the soul winces and the mind reels. It's not all so ponderously serious, however--"A Loop in Time" features a barroom monologue on time-traveling Jews, and "The Universe" ends with a snippet from a pants commercial.

It's The Covenant's ability to musically present entire continents of implication and emotion--while at the same time allowing the music to stand self-contained--that makes it an important and affecting work.

--Matt Weitz

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Matt Weitz