Bakullama – Sleepers

Aside from jumping straight into listening to some music, sometimes I confess to being tempted to do a little reading first. It is a balancing act here, as researching bands and musicians can often act as something of a spoiler when writing reviews. A distraction from the listening experience, which is oft better done without expectations. In the case of Bakullama though, the temptation was just too strong. It seems this album’s creators hail from Walla Walla in Washington state. So distant. So unfamiliar?

Having never heard of this neck of the woods, I was surprised to encounter things, on paper at least, that resonated deeply with both personal interests, and past appreciations. A small city, inland and seemingly remote. A history of scorching summers, and a bygone era of hunting for that all elusive gold. By Australian standards, a 4 hour trip to Seattle or Portland seems rather close too, and although Walla Walla is very much unknown to me, the impact of this location’s neighbours on the rock, jazz, classical, pop and a favourite of mine… grunge, developments over the years, is something quite incredible.

So already, before even listening, my expectations are that this will be something really special! With a smile, the headphones go on, and I dive into Bandcamp‘s WAV file downloads…

The Princess of Tisul / Hadean Funeral starts things off in a pleasingly unsettling manner. Discordant tinkling and guitar strums, ah and here enters a beat. A saxophone glides above for a time, whilst piano notes come and go, shifting the listener into a relaxed and I must say, rather contented state. It is experimental work for sure, with a future undetermined by rules. I adore this! So many forms of music just don’t have this… unpredictability. The subtleness balanced with complexity, to beckon for repeat listens, and by that I mean “proper” listening. A full attention span is surely rewarded here.

Yes, there is a highly improvisational yet soothing jazzy feel to this sonic landscape. Around the 4 minute mark, some magic really happens. Delayed spoken vocals lead into a strengthening of that which came before, pluckings at guitar, and later the addition of long, glorious untranslatable singing akin to what one might hear in world music. The track, as a whole, effortlessly glides between its sections in an almost ambient manner. This is music which takes the listener somewhere, without ever screaming exactly where that “somewhere” lies. This empowerment of the listener is to be really appreciated!

With Butcher Shop I’m expecting a shift. Not only is the piece half the length of its predecessor, the title feels like something of a warning. Oh indeed, things are getting more rocky here! Distorted guitar, screamy solos soon accompanied by droplets of piano which take the lead in a jazz-like form closer to the track’s end, before synth arpeggiation takes over. Is this synthwave with jazz fused together now? Certainly not the ending I was anticipating!

So thus far in, I’m feeling more than genre-blending going on here. The recordings sound nostalgic, almost with a live and “straight to tape” kind of vibe, yet the audio itself is more future-focused, experimental and reactive. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that these works might be recorded live as a band, and accepted as they are, a moment’s capture, devoid of post-production’s risks in depleting what was truth. They feel like living moments, captures of real people working together at a specific point in time. It’s all very… “real”, and honest, like a jam where anyone might do anything without warning, and the concepts come and go with the movement of hands upon instruments, and the opening of mouths. Bakullama appear to take comfort in this, focusing more on truth, than what constitutes a recording’s perfection. Perhaps this realness to the work, is the perfection they aim to capture. In considering this, I realise that this listening experience isn’t like listening to WAV files at all. It is closer to actually being in a live music venue, sat in a comfortable chair and letting things just happen! The band performing is as vulnerable as they are intimate. Yes, it becomes easy to forget that I’m actually sat in front of a computer as all this unfolds.

The Waves commences in a lovely, dare I say it, “beachy” manner with tremolo-laden guitar. And here we find some vocals delivered in a more familiar fashion too, singing of an ocean’s peace. For a time, Bakullama has popped the experimental and progressive sensibilities to the side. Is this a turning point in the album? A reset for the listener to prepare themselves for what lies ahead? There is only one way to find out!

The People vs. Celia Valdez opens with the buzzing of numerous insectoids. Here we go! Synth stabs join in with chimes and a break into opera! The changes are continuous, piano, moans of feminine… pleasure? Pain? And more. Unsettling one might call it. Challenging also. This one loses that “jam” feeling that was setup previously, and drops the listener straight into a decisively more cinematic realm. The soundtrack to a disturbing and endless shifting of… well, I’m not exactly sure what the visuals would be. Something intrinsically artful, and most definitely far outside of anything traditional. The piece isn’t exactly to my personal taste, but the way it counters the nature of its predecessor The Waves, feels quite stunning when considering the album’s progression as a whole entity. It leaves one really curious about where we are headed next. What further surprises await us?

Dead Man Trolling sees the return of a drum’s beating, that untamed saxophone, and the jazz-infused piano we’ve become to appreciate as a bit of a signature here. The vocals enter to sing above a minor bassy synth pad, making the experience dark to say the least. Intrinsically solemn. I very much enjoyed this moment in the album, almost wishing it had been extended further. Or… is that just those earlier lengthy tracks effecting my expectations?

There walks a Man. This one sees the sax and guitars take the lead for longer moments, as the artists appear to bounce their ideas off one another, a nice drum pattern beneath providing continuity and an ongoing foundation.

Mean old world – Big Sky Drifter follows to feature some wonderful guitar strumming and effortless tinkles on harmonics. A change comes abruptly then with the entrance of rhythm and synth melodies formed of long gestures. I found this a really enjoyable moment in the work, simple but melodic, introspective in emotion and reminiscent of progressive music from times past. Just like The Waves, these moments from Bakullama make quite a statement when placed into the context of all that surrounds them. Proof that the experimental prevalence in other tracks aren’t there to be considered alone. The musicians are as comfortable leaning into things more structured, and dare I say it “approachable and understandable”, as they are in taking music off the rails into locations unfamiliar.

Forgive Me Timi changes up the synth pads and adds more delicate wind sections, above long, slowly decaying female vocal work soaring about within a piece that feels serene and contemplative. Restful would be one way to describe it. Ambience has taken control for a short while, perhaps to allow the listener space to ponder upon their experience thus far. It almost feels like a natural conclusion to the work, but surprisingly there is one last taste of Bakullama‘s sonic panorama to settle into.

The Sun – Haymaker brings sensations of world music charm to high pitched choral drifting, and haunting pianos. Slow-paced and loaded to the brim with atmosphere, I feel something very special happening here. Aside from touches of glitchy sounds and delayed spoken sampling, the foundation is a most pleasing step into ambient restfulness. Then, half way through, the dramatic tension escalates into distorted guitar, only to be replaced by flutes! As soon as the heaviness rises, it falls away once more, and over again, before entering into a piano’s too-short lived solo. But do not fear, it too returns, to accompany us into an escalation… the final voices, and the last moments of what has been an unforgettable experience.

Returning to my earlier discovery of a little place named Walla Walla, I am uncertain if geography has any real relevance here. Would it be presumptuous of me to assume that the music feels born of “community”, of the bonds between those who dare to share musical moments with each other? To me, it does. It all feels so human, truthful in delivery and purpose, uncompromised by rework or the curses of trying to be anything other than itself, and all this… whilst largely remaining quite abstract. That is no small accomplishment. Furthermore, it feels as though these musicians reside in not just a wild pocket of space, but have had the opportunity to draw upon the influence of nearby lands, yet remain distant enough from it so as to not be tied or burdened. In this release it is clear that they are very much themselves, and I have to expect the pleasure in listening, comes about as a result of many enjoyable times exploring, freely playing, and sharing in each other’s presence. It is an album I greatly look forward to returning to, and no doubt there are subtleties which may have eluded me this first time around. A process of discovery, that I am deeply thankful for.

Bakullama on Bandcamp: