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Dennis Rea - Giant Steppes CD (album) cover


Dennis Rea


Eclectic Prog

4.00 | 2 ratings

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4 stars From Seattle to the Silk Road

Before I dive into my first album review in many years, I want to make it clear that this album is NOT what loyal prog traditionalists will be looking for as one of their Top 10 of 2021. However, "Giant Steppes" is the kind of offering that is bound to delight (or at the very least intrigue) supporters of the "progressive rather than prog" school of thought.

Having known Dennis Rea for years - since I met him at NEARFest 2010, where his primary band, Moraine, performed in the coveted Church of Prog (i.e. Sunday morning) slot - I am aware of how baffled he has always been with the workings of prog fans' minds. Even if his long and variegated career has more in common with free jazz and avant-garde than Genesis, Rea still has a soft enough spot for the genre to be one of the members of the organizing committee of SeaProg Festival - at the time of writing, the only prog festival on the US West Coast.

A dedicated musician and composer, throughout the years Rea has shied away from the spotlight, preferring to lend his considerable skills to various bands and projects rather than fly with his own wings. In fact, "Giant Steppes" is only his fourth solo recording (though the first two are not easy to find) - a natural continuation of his excellent 2010 album "Views From Chicheng Precipice", inspired by the years he spent in China and Taiwan between the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s. "Giant Steppes", in many ways, takes up where Views left off - not only musically, but also geographically, as it is the product of Rea's three visits to Central Asia (hence its punny title) during the second decade of the 21st century.

These days, such a project might leave its author open to accusations of cultural appropriation. However, this is no superficial foray into the exotic, motivated by curiosity but ultimately unconcerned with the history and tradition of those ancient lands. "Giant Steppes" is the product of a life-altering experience shared with a number of local and international musicians -a true commerce of ideas, underpinned by a profound respect for a centuries-old culture, musical and otherwise.

What boosts the the album's artistic credibility - besides Rea's obvious dedication to his craft - is the participation of two local artists whom Rea met during his visits to Siberia. One of them is Russian bassist Wadim Dicke; the other is legendary singer Albert Kuvezin, one of the founders of Huun-Huur-Tu, the ensemble that introduced Western audiences to the traditional art of Tuvan throat singing - a unique form of vocal expression, deeply rooted in the animistic and nomadic culture of Central Asia, that has recently been popularized by folk-metal bands such as The Hu. Kuvezin is highly skilled in "kargyraa" - the deepest-sounding variety of throat singing, which at a superficial level might remind the listener of the growling associated with extreme metal.

Each of the album's four tracks is based on traditional songs and motifs, successfully integrating authenticity and modernity. Through the timeless language of music, each composition paints a vivid picture that evokes the vast landscapes of Central Asia, its majestic mountains and endless plains beneath the eternal blue sky. In the space of a very reasonable running time (under 50 minutes), the listener is treated to a dizzying sonic experience that painstakingly combines different influences and contributions. Rea's guitars, while enjoying a prominent role, do not dominate the other instruments, lending the album the overall feel of a truly collaborative project rather than an ego-fueled one.

"Giant Steppes" opens with the seamless blend of Western instruments (as well as didgeridoo) and Central Asian cadences of "Live at Gaochang" (dedicated to the plight of the Uyghur people), where horns and guitar weave a spellbinding melody before lapsing into pauses of rarefied near-silence, with effects that evoke the wind and other sounds of nature. "Altai By and By" features mournful, haunting female vocal textures, courtesy of Seattle-based Russian vocal ensemble Juliana and PAVA - with the added spice of a bit of daring vocal experimentation in the middle of the song. The brisk, sax-led tune of "The Wind of the World's Nest" (with lyrics by Tuvan poet and shaman Gaisan Tschinag) showcases Kuvezin's otherworldly contrabass vocals, with some clever almost-metal touches. "The Fellowship of Tsering" combines accessibility (original Tibetan pop, no less!) and mysticism, enhanced by field recordings of a Tibetan prayer wheel and prayer flags, and the deep, elephant-like sound of the dungchen horn.

Those who want to delve deeper into the story behind "Giant Steppes" will want to check out Rea's companion book, "Tuva and Busted", available as a free download from Blue Ear Books. A lively, highly entertaining read - which never glosses over the problems that still plague those ancient lands - the book is essential to understanding how this unique album came to be. Adventurous listeners are heartily encouraged to check out this outstanding example of East-meets-West musical fusion, born out of genuine love and respect for the music and culture of those faraway lands.

Raff | 4/5 |


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