If you press the randomizer button on the global jukebox, the needle seldom drops on sounds from Korea. The last time that happened we enjoyed or endured the K-Pop spasms of Psy’s Gangnam Style. This K-Jazz release from Black String wipes that memory clean away. This late 2016 release on Germany’s Act label is one of the years eeriest takes on traditional music and the fast forward.
The key to Black String is the sparkling sonorities conjured up by the confident meld of unusual instruments. Their leader, Yoon Jeong plays the geomungo, It’s a six string zither which is heavy on atmosphere and has the sucker punch of slapped bass. Aram Lee supplies the strains of traditional Korea music on flute and dulcimer. Jean Ohm is the modernist on treated guitar and electro dissonances. The jangu, a native drum is played by Min Wang who also sings.
The 11 minute curtain raiser Seven Beats begins as a sinister mood piece. The spatial twang of the geomungo is joined by a fast moving methodical cat’s cradle of percussive beats and forthright sparks of fx’s guitar, recalling the nervy focus of Discipline era King Crimson. Part fusion, part dystopian string quartet, it’s a very striking start. Growth Ring wears more classical clothes with Lee’s ethereal flute drawing a lonely flutescape. The snap of the geomungo and the flushes of art rock guitar brushstrokes help make this a vivid mix of ancient and modern. The title track Mask Dance returns to rockier terrain with dueling geomungo and guitar glued together with the throaty wailing vocals of Lee. Rythmically both tense and supple it’s another catching workout tinged with grace and danger.
Song From Heaven dips itself back into the well of Korean melody with pointed fretwork but Hwang’s extended vocalise added an overall taste that I could not acquire. Full on Asian Jazz fusion is the story on Dang, Dang, Dang. It’s another long track with a stuttering guitar prelude to insistent cries from the flute underpinned by clear water drum tempos and prowling geomungo. The album wraps with Strangeness Moon, a collage like composition which lives up to that title. An almost forest like mood of creaks and tones greets the listener temperature fades up to near free jazz wig out before returning to a hushed finale.
Black String tie many bows and always make ends meet with diverting album. To put it stonily the reach of Korean world or jazz tunes is going to be small which is a pity as Black String may well appeal to the Pitchfork reader or the Radiohead fan if they get to hear them.