Despite the fact that Canadian/German drone group Nadja has a long history of collaborating with various artists from around the globe, their 2014 collaboration with Italian hip hop duo Uochi Toki may be one of the partnerships that seems the most unlikely. I first became aware of Nadja back in 2009 with the release of Pyramids with Nadja, a lush, grandiose album that was alternately thunderous and positively serene. All in all, it was one of my favorite ambient works of the new millennium and an album that immediately made me pay attention to future Nadja projects – but the two groups who produced it were more or less very similar. I wasn’t quite sure that there would be the same chemistry between Uochi Toki and Nadja, but upon hearing the record I guess I shouldn’t have been so skeptical about Cystema Solari even if it sounds on paper like a weird combination of elements.
Starting out unsettling and jarring in its opening tracks which are set in the far reaches of Pluto, Neptune, and Uranus, Cystema Solari (as would be indicated by the title) seems to take the listener on a journey through the solar system, eventually annihilating the listener with harsh, grinding noise when it focuses on the sun in its final track. Guitar and bass (performed respectively by Nadja’s Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff) are sludgy and loud throughout, with Uochi Toki producer Rico adding various sound effects and harsh rhythms to create the feeling of traveling across the galaxy. Sporadic and almost mechanical Italian-language vocals of rapper Napo seem only to add another hypnotic element to the already transfixing album. I don’t speak Italian, but picking out certain passages from the lyrics suggests that these vocals serve the purpose of being a sort of “mission control” alongside the musical base.
Unsurprisingly given the nature of the group, Nadja does a remarkable job of creating music that’s very evocative of the planet(s) listed in the album’s track titles. First track “Pluton, Neptune, Uran” starts off with whirring instrumental parts grinding away under Napo’s more or less spoken word vocals. The track eventually settles into a definitive ambient section of guitar drone and feedback squeals building out of and fading back into the omnipresent bass rumble. More ghostly and doomy, “Saturn, Jupiter” has a nagging, scratchy rhythm pushing it forward with less definable instrumental parts, while “Mars, Earth, Venus” plays a bit like a more experimental variation of Slowdive’s brand of shoegaze. Under the resonant guitar and bass, there’s a constant fluttering of airy tones, making this comparatively inviting and warm alongside the other, more foreboding tracks on the album. Lengthy final track “Sun,” as mentioned, is very gnarly and abrasive, with rhythm and instrumental parts that have been reduced to pulverized, crackling background noise. The destructive and repetitive final half of the piece seems to replicate the feel of being burned alive in the solar atmosphere, and the few seconds of silence included at the extreme end of the track seem appropriate given how harrowing the prior seventeen minutes are .
Ranging from being quite relaxing to positively distressing, the concept album approach to Cystema Solari makes this in my mind a bit more accessible than the typical album by the likes of Sunn o))) or Earth even if there is a lot of repetition and not much in the way of pronounced melody. Nadja’s use of experimental techniques gave this album some similarities to classic 1970s space rock, and the record as a whole certainly reinforces my feeling that Nadja is producing some of the best work in the drone metal genre. Cystema Solari wouldn’t at all appeal to the crowd that only listens to popular hip hop, but in the same way a group like Clipping has changed up the basic rap music formula, Uochi Toki seems here to be demonstrating a different way of doing things. I should add that while I wasn't bothered by the Italian language vocals (not being able to understand the vocals makes it seem like a recording made by extraterrestrials), some people might be annoyed or turned off by the fact they can't understand what is being said. Ultimately, as would probably be expected, this album wouldn’t be to everyone’s liking, but it works surprisingly well as both doomy and noisy ambient drone and as non-conventional hip-hop. I’d call it excellent for what it is.
8.0 / 10
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