(All Album Reviews by Ursula)
What makes Karda Estra's The Last Of The Libertine one of the most outstanding albums of the year 2007 is not only its intricate, enchanting music but also its relevance as contemporary artwork.
In our time it seems that everything has to be loud and right up into one's face to get noticed. The more surprising it is when an artist then continues to write music that requires some attention from the listener in order to get the full benefit of it. In Karda Estra's case this effect is partly a result of the choice of topic. Stuff like stars (as in Constellations) and vampires (as in Voivode Dracula) simply lies out with the range of the everyday experience.
For his new album Richard Wileman chose an equally difficult subject, that of the libertine. Being a libertine was an extreme lifestyle choice of the late 16th and the 17th century which became possible out of the sociological changes that took place in Europe. Old religious structures like the Catholic Church lost political influence in European courts and were substituted by new religious movements while science provided for additional 'enlightenment', allowing everyone to question old structures. Wars and revolutions did their part to shake up old feudal systems and in its wake a sense for pleasure and enjoyment of life could develop. In this vivid times extremes like Puritanism, that literally denied all pleasure, developed and of course also the opposite extreme, that of the libertine, who was prepared to indulge in all kinds of lusts and pleasures thus defying any morality. What distinguishes a libertine from the modern playboy are the moral arrangements which today have become largely a private affair and where it is down to the people involved to decide to which set of rules they comply. In contrast, contemporaries of the libertine still lived by a commonly applicable and binding moral rules, women even more so. And it was thus the extraordinary ability of the libertine to deem himself above those rules and, what's more, to get away with it! What thrill must it have been for the so inclined woman to be seen in the company of such a man, to play with fire, to be sought out, desired, adored and seduced, to be the selected one, elevated above the dull social gatherings in drawing rooms. And for the so inclined man what liberation it must have been to call him a friend, to benefit of the atmosphere of danger that was surrounding him, the erotic thrill, the glamour and the easiness of the sexual adventures that could be experienced in his company.
But what about the libertine himself? What drives him and how can he manage to get away with his outrageous deeds? How does it effect him and does he know true love? It seems a fascinating subject, so much that many people had a go at it in many forms. For example Graham Green wrote an insightful book about John Wilmot second Earl of Rochester, a real life libertine, and Russel T. Davis produced a fantastic mini series dealing with Casanova's life while Stephen Jeffrey's play The Libertine was also inspired by the life of John Wilmot.
So it doesn't come as a surprise that to approach this topic with music is not new either. Richard Strauss composed his excellent version of an interpretation of Don Juan's life in the tone poem.
This begs the question if it really was necessary to produce yet another piece of art concerning itself with a libertine?
Why, of course it was necessary! Not only because we all desire a piece of that freedom, and the admiration a libertine is capable of attracting, but also because the topic touches on fundamental issues that we have to deal with on a daily basis, to determine which moral and social values we want to choose to follow, which implication our own actions have on others and vice versa, how we come to terms with our deeds, when we regret them, and how do we enjoy our triumphs and also how much we are attracted to superficial glamour in contrast to lasting values.
And it is this which Richard Wileman ingeniously wraps into music. He doesn't describe the libertine's social life like Strauss did, rather he captures the moods and impressions and conflicts that a libertine's life creates. As mentioned at the outset, this music is not blatant. It plays with subtleties and nuances. Tension arise more from juxtapositioning of elements and the build-up within musical pieces than from changes in time signature and dissonance, but tension arises. Richard doesn't use direct quotes that would drive home the imagery of the libertine, instead he uses guitar and trumpet ingeniously to the effect of a classical sounding hint, to create seemingly familiar impressions in the back of the listener's mind while almost simultaneously counteracting this with a modern tune and/or rhythm which results in density and texture. Deviation seems to be a basic concept of the entire album and although The Last Of The Libertine comes with a, for Karda Estra, typical sound there is no direct resemblance to the earlier albums. With The Last Of The Libertine Richard Wileman doesn't give answers, he rather raises old questions within new contexts and this is exactly what makes this album so intriguing and so entertaining.
While the music can easily stand on its own, and be thoroughly enjoyed as such, there is also additional information to be found on Karda Estra's webpage from where the CD also can be purchased:
(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
There's this thing about the Karda Estra sound that somehow I consider it to very much represent the kind of music I've liked for the last decade or so. Karda Estra just seem to always have been there during that period. Not surprising perhaps given that composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Richard Wileman, in all senses the man behind Karda Estra, has been a prolific and consistent artist during that time. He's been making music as Karda Estra for about a decade now and in that time has released 11 CDs, with The Last of The Libertine representing the latest of those.
That word 'consistency' is extremely important. I don't think there has ever been a bad Karda Estra album, and this one by no means bucks that trend, but it's also worth saying that the Karda Estra sound is very much unique, distinctive and in many ways very similar from album to album. In a review of the last Karda Estra album, The Age of Science and Enlightenment from 2006, I described its sound as an almost trademark combination of progressive, classical, ambient and experimental elements, the sounds of haunting, other worldly vocals, provided as ever by Ileesha Bailey, mixed with powerful symphonic moments and dramatic changes in mood.
It's that sound that is both a blessing and a curse for Karda Estra. Again with regard to The Age of Science and Enlightmentment I suggested that certain tracks sounded like they could have come from any of the past few KE albums. As I wrote at the time, that wasn't a problem because the music was as good as ever, but I questioned whether Richard could push the boundaries of the KE sound a little further to prevent it from becoming over-familiar and formulaic. At this point the answer definitely seems to be yes.
This album does not represent a total change of direction for Richard and his band of female musicians, but then I don't think anyone was really expecting a musical metamorphosis. There are clear hints of a continuation from The Age of Science and Enlightenment if only because the musical line-up is very similar, but I was pleasantly surprised to find more variety and diversity in the music than I was expecting.
So instrumentally you'll still hear Richard's contributions of guitars, keyboards and percussion combined with Ileesha Bailey's typically excellent vocals and the violin, oboe, cor anglais, flute and saxophone offered by the rest of the musicians, but there's something in the writing that makes much of 'The Last of the Libertine' stand out more distinctly from recent Karda Estra albums, plus the addition of Louise Hirst on trumpet is a more than welcome one. The simple addition of a brass instrument has brought a new dimension to the sound and style of Karda Estra. It may not be a revolutionary change but it is part of an overall evolution that has seen Karda Estra move from an ethereal progressive rock act with a penchant for horror film soundtracks to something that little bit broader, more complex and, with this CD in particular, more versatile.
A distinctive part of this evolution can be heard via the increased heaviness of this album. While Karda Estra have always sounded like a classically influenced prog rock band, there's somewhat more emphasis on the rock elements this time. This is something of a concept album but as I don't really know much about the particular concept and don't think you need to know it to enjoy the album I'm going to move straight onto the tracks themselves.
The album opens with the shortest track on the album, “Paper Cuts”, which provides a two-and-a-half minute eerie introduction to what is to come. It's on this track that we first hear the brass sounds and they work perfectly amongst the more typical piano and flute, forming part of a powerful crescendo.
“Life Drawing” gives the first indications that this is going to be a more aggressive Karda Estra album, with Richard's electric guitars taking on more of an edgy Robert Fripp-like quality than the tranquil Steve Hackett style we more readily associate him with. The use of brass on this track and the next, “Atom of Warmth”, leads me to make some comparisons I never really expected to make when describing a Karda Estra album. I'm reminded of both John Barry and Burt Bacharach, with the Bacharach comparisons particularly apt for “Atom of Warmth”. This is an intriguing and captivating number that sounds like some alternate reality version of Karda Estra. It's to Richard's immense credit that he manages to make it work.
“Morning Wraiths” is perhaps a more traditional Karda Estra track which makes particularly effective use of Ileesha Bailey's wordless vocals, though again the track is slightly more aggressive than usual, with stronger beats and more rhythmic urgency.
With a name like “Halcyon Years” you might expect this track to be the most gentle, relaxed and sweet to be offered on the album so far and you'd not be wrong. It's likely to appeal to those fans of Steve Hackett's more elegant classically-tinged instrumental work, though there's still a sense of menace largely indicated by the presence of the brass sounds.
The CD's title track returns the album to its more rhythmic and aggressive tone. Again I can feel the traditional Hackett elements creeping in, but on this track it's the rockier side of Hackett's work that's in evidence, and I'm reminded particularly of moments from the Spectral Mornings album. In complete contrast, the opening of “Black Sun” is far more peaceful and at times this track made me think of some warm John Barry film soundtrack or even something from chill-out kings Zero 7. Admittedly the title makes one wonder if this track doesn't hint towards darker things, but musically we never really get to hear them. A very nice track but one that never really goes anywhere.
The album ends with another more relaxed number but this time one of a slightly darker tone. “Terra Nova” is perhaps one of the most un-Karda Estra-like tracks on the album, making heavy use of brass sounds and even moving towards jazz territory. The end result is something akin to a cross between Karda Estra, Burt Bacharach and Miles Davis. As an indication of just how far Karda Estra can go and yet still sound like Karda Estra, it's a fascinating experiment, plus it proves to be a fine finale to the album.
I wrote earlier that I'm not sure there's ever been a bad Karda Estra album but this is probably the best one since 2003's Constellations. It displays some very different sides to the band and it is both a brave and successful experiment.
Best tracks: “Paper Cuts”, “Life Drawing”, “The Atom of Warmth”, “Morning Wraiths”, “The Last of the Libertine”.