Terra Nostra – Echo Park Orchestra (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

I get a lot of music pass under my virtual pen which, even at first glance, you pretty much know what you are going to writing about, without even listening to it. The cover art, the titles, just the whole vibe of the peripheral accoutrements is a real give away and off you go down tried and tested pathways trying to find something new to say about cliched rock bands, retro inspired indie kids or wailing stage school karaokists bringing nothing new to the table. Thankfully that is never the case with Echo Park Orchestra. This is my third time in their world and I still don’t really know what’s going on. That’s good right? I think so. The music challenges you to find new things to say, to unpick their generic blends (if indeed they are even that conscious of them) and write in new and interesting ways. I mean, I have already used the phrase “peripheral accoutrements” and I wasn’t even that aware I was doing so!

And it isn’t just the music which is breaking new ground…or old ground…or perhaps ground in some sort of parallel dimension, conceptually they are fascinating too. None of your lifestyle self-aggrandisement to be found here, not a “since my baby left me” in sight. Perhaps not a concept album in the truest of senses but definitely an album with a few central themes, Terra Nostra seems to be about the evolution of the world from today toward untold possible futures. It reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World and its prediction of the human race devolving into forms better suited to changing environments. Sort of. I may be wrong.

The album relates stories of escaped animals and our relationships with the increasing intelligence of technology, though to tales of mythical beasts or perhaps future forms or just mere analogies. It shines a spotlight on the gathering black clouds of today’s global politics, finds predictions and parallels in medieval poetry and ends with a hedonistic beach party.

And if the lyrics are wonderfully obscure, the music is likewise unpredictable and challenging. There are blends of 60’s pop and echoes of musical theatre, as if this is the score to a strange off-Broadway (so far off it’s in the swamps of New Jersey) production. It’s a bit proggy in places, wonderfully experimental and up for a spot of avant-gardening. In My Eyrie feels like a 1920’s drinking club which is slowly turning into a latin dance studio via the medium of classical Indian music! I told you it was a challenging place to hang out!

Manoj Baruah’s violin, which is sort of a musical thread running through the whole album, is the defining sound on The Mermaid and The Birdman, setting up a haunting, swirling theme which is then explored by delicate clarinet and other gentle instrumental additions. The title track plays with more conventional structures whilst it explores the dark recesses of modern society and those who seem to be leading this dark dance and the wonderfully titled Making Wicky-Wacky Down in Waikiki borders on the same mad sonic pastures that The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band used to frolic in.

So what’s it all about? I still don’t know. I have my suspicions but I think everyone who listens to this album will get something different out of it. And listen to it you should. It will confuse and confound but it will also remind you that the best music is found off of the beaten track…and this is way off the beaten track. Then again, who wants to follow the mainstream sheep down tried and tested pathways when you can dance in the fields with the free people, the informed people, the mad people! But, listen closely and you will find some amazing ideas hidden in its strange narratives. Music which makes you think! Whatever next?

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