The Arty Semite

Guitar Pedals and Goat Strings

By Jake Marmer

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Shanir Blumenkranz’s extensive contribution to the world of radical Jewish music can only be compared to Robbie Shakespeare’s formative influence on reggae. Blumenkranz plays on numerous projects issued by the Tzadik label — so many of them, in fact, that his recognizable style of bass playing is virtually inseparable from the sound has come to define so many of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music projects, including Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pitom, Edom, Rashanim and Kef, among others. He has closely collaborated with label’s producer, John Zorn.

So it is particularly exciting to see Blumenkranz in the role of band leader. With guitarists Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian, as well as Kenny Grohowski on drums, Blumenkranz has released “Abraxas: Book of Angels 19,” a set of compositions penned by Zorn. Exchanging his usual electric bass for gimbri — an acoustic African instrument with three strings made of goat skin — Blumenkranz propels his ensemble with raw and intricate rhythms.

In contrast with the previous “Book of Angels” rendition by David Krakauer — a darkly whimsical, phantasmagoric record defined by its androgynous plasticity — Blumenkranz’s album is an all-male, three-guitar-and-drums, no-nonsense affair. Most of the tunes apply a jazz approach to the hard rocking, heavy metal sound. Many tracks are danceable, and yet the impulse towards rocking out goes hand in hand with abstraction, a collision of textures and colors.

Whether frenzied or mellow, virtually every tune builds up to, and arrives at, a deeply hypnotic sound. There’s something ritualistic about the band’s synergy and their approach; it is as if the quartet’s inexplicable direction, at all times, is towards this very hallucinatory, hypnotic place. It is as if these musicians are on a mission to rediscover that sense differently and anew in each new situation.

“Yaasriel,” the fourth track on the album, is a perfect example of this tendency: lusciously slow, sparsely melodic but thoroughly textured. It breathes heavily, yet with grace and precision. It is a Bedouin melancholy in an immaculately produced minimalistic landscape. According to tradition, Yaasriel is the angel or demon armed with 70 pencils, writing and rewriting a divine name on a broken chard over the abyss, saving the world with each gesture.

What better metaphor for an avant-garde collective of musicians who, in their exploration, rediscover the world they find themselves in, sustaining it through compositions that must continue at every moment to survive.


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