Witch 'N' Monk reviewed for Something Else reviews April 2020
Witch 'n' Monk are Columbian flautist Mauricio Velasierra and British soprano and guitarist Heidi Heidelberg whose music is a mix of Latin American flutes, unconventional vocals, electric guitar and electronics. Once known as 'Bitch 'n' Monk' their new name far better circumscribes the magical connotations which abound in their music. A mix of punk, free form and jazzy compositions of texture and complexities, this music is almost guaranteed to be different from anything you heard before. The pair have played across Europe and their performances have included prestigious venues like the Royal Festival Hall, Paradox and Dunkers and jazz festivals including London, Manchester and Umea as well as venues of a different nature such as Italian skate parks or among the thorn bushes in overgrown East London gardens.
Their eponymous album is out on John Zorn’s Tzadik imprint. Following 2016’s critically-acclaimed 'We Are Peering Over', the duo have built on their intimate artistic partnership. Interestingly, their journey has been as impulsive as their music. One day, they abandoned the structures in their lives, packed clothes, a 20kg sac of rice and their home studio into a van and drove to the secluded Welsh mountains where the core energy of the album was first captured as a series of improvisations. The process continued in an old Stasi bunker in East Berlin, and later a tower block inhabited by punks.
The story of this album is as much a love-story of two minds meeting over an insane dedication to creating symphonies as it is an artistic response to the disintegration of truth, reality and traditional structures; an engagement with shamanic naturalism and mysticism through music.
Over the course of the album Colombian traditional flutes virtuoso Mauricio Velasierra makes use
of his vast arsenal of wind instruments, with melodies that range from the savage to the
sublime. Andean Sikus pan-pipes are ripped from their usual folk context and transformed into a
giant puffing lung and keyless quena flutes soar eerily above intricately orchestrated string arrangements.
Anarchic soprano and guitarist Heidi Heidelberg shape-shifts through vocal timbres and
characters, from genuinely unhinged chants of half-words to soulful tango-esque storytelling. The pair say of the recording, “The momentum for this album was a commitment to abandoning that egoistic 20th century idea of the lone (male) composer writing his opus. That’s why we started by recording what was essentially stream-of-consciousness music; completely free improvisations which we then used as the sonic canvas.”
When the album was partial complete and on its way to being released a spontaneous nocturnal exchange brought their demo to the attention of John Zorn who signed the duo to his label Tzadik but left them total artistic freedom to bring it to completion. Speaking about the album Tzadik says there’s “a touch of Frank Zappa lyricism and a radical punk aesthetic…Heidi Heidelberg and Mauricio Velasierra craft a dramatically bizarre vocal music from another dimension! Intertwining dark/light,
feminine/masculine, composed/improvised and punk/romantic, dreamlike improvisations are
sampled, manipulated and reinvented through the lens of contemporary music and pop. You have
never heard anything quite like Witch ’n’ Monk!”
Armed with half a million minutes of obsessional composition, the pair invited guest drummers from across the creative music scene to be part of the sound. Mercury Music Award nominee Seb Rochford (Patti Smith, Polar Bear, Sons of Kemet) appears on ‘Coal Mine’, Swiss rising-star drummer Nicolas Stocker lent his impeccable groove to ‘Escarbando’, faced with typically Witch ’n’ Monk arhythmic breaks and asymmetrical time signatures and Gidon Carmel was drafted in for 'The Cage'. With the aim of retaining spontaneity in every aspect of the music there was each drummer added their own character to the tracks they contribute to.
Explaining the process Witch ’n’ Monk say: “in the isolation of the Welsh mountains, the river
Ystwyth in the background roaring with the night’s rainfall, melodies, grooves, characters and
stories just occurred to us. It’s a total fusion of our two minds, in collaboration with nature. Each
piece is a journey; a water molecule that leaves the boggy source and meanders downhill,
eventually meeting the sea. As a listener you just have to abandon your expectations of form and
allow yourself be guided downstream. That’s why we call our music ‘Fluid Form’”
The opening track ‘Escarbando’ is a symphonic composition which wends its way through many different sonic landscapes. A raw string introduces a strong drum rhythm and a multi-voiced choir that morphs into a sci-fi Borg-like rap. The following section is a seductive cascade of synth chords accompanying Heidelberg's signature self-made language of ghost words that induce an urge to seek meaning. The hiatus of the piece is a battle between post-punk junkyard jazz instruments and a tight Amazonian groove played on Gaitas (sacred indigenous twin flutes made of cactus wood, charcoal and beeswax). Witch ’n’ Monk deliver a final thumping prophetic message inspired by the Kogui people of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia. There are hints of Hagen, Crass and many other edge-of punk bands with strong characters and the rock chord lines at times offer a heaviness which counteracts the transcendence in the vocals, which include Spanish male-voice vocals over an offset rhythm. This in effect defines the multi cultural essence of the piece and the finish, "do not take more than what you need" in clear echoed vocals is a very effective message given the different national draws in the inputs.
'Coal Mine' is somehow beautiful, yet incredibly emotive with its coloratura vocals and pin-point accuracy in the rhythms. The song tells a sorry tale and electronica overlay and warping is used to emphasis both the voice and instrumentation. Velasierra dips into his larder of flutes on this track and introduces some quite beautiful over tones whilst the drums of Seb Rochford add their strength and fortitude.
‘Self’ opens with a furious quena flute call over open structured drum lines that introduce a story - told in Spanish and English - of a woman whose wavering belief brings her to the edge of the valley paralysed as she prepares for a leap of faith. Heavy electronic distorted bass and drum grooves build up the vertiginous tension, mirroring this woman’s journey. At the height of the piece a digitally effected quena solo crosses into the surreal, giving way to a gentle spell-like verse sung accompanied by charango (a traditional Andean 10-stringed instrument), and evolves into a soaring flute and tribal drum outro. The complexity of the narrative is echoed by the depth and texture in the soaring arrangements - a stand out track.
'Pagan's Storm and The Sea Ballad' is opened with calling flute, into which the vocals drop inferring an eerie sense of unease, set up with the over-dubbed flutes and strong, insistent vocals. The beautiful, esoteric vocal solo over guitar is mesmeric.
'The Cage 'is a Latin influenced number with string backing and an orchestral flavour to the opening sections, topped by ethereal vocals which are echoed briefly and atmospherically by the violin. The track tells the tale of feeling trapped and, the mixing and engineering help create a sense of ever increasing frustration and search for freedom.
'The Gathering' feels tribal, anarchic yet somehow also grounded because of the strength of the classical compositional elements. The flutes here are used to create different levels of harmonic structure which fill the arrangement wonderfully, especially the double tongued sections where the voice can be heard under the notes, adding the sense of the emotive urgency to the track. 'Outchant' is different, charming and highly rhythmic with the voices used to add rhythms and percussive elements, along with the guitar. The slower paced section in the middle, topped out by Heidi's crazy-lady vocals is ear-catching and provides a great contrast to the return to the pre-set rhythms.
'Gualchovan' is deeper and speaks directly to the tribal part of us all. Strong rhythms, emphatic ghost language vocals and a surreal visitation to music which unites different languages and cultures through its combination of ancient sounds and modern engineering.
By its nature this album transcends definition. It cheerfully sits on the outer reaches of
contemporary music, jazz-punk and experimental music, exuding a creative freedom that guides
the listener into an unusual and boldly original sound world. Witch 'n' Monk may place themselves on the outskirts of what can be called convention in musicality but they possess an allure which draws and charms a wide audience. What is very clear is a sense of entitlement almost' the unwavering belief that this music is vital, has something to say and listening, you are in agreement. Energy-imbued and managing to be different yet at the same time drawing on much of the musical inferences which have been apparent on the edges since the late 1970s, this pair charmingly add modern vibes and this album never feels retro in its outlook or musicality. Gloriously different, wonderfully listenable and offering something more each time.
2. Coal Mine
4. Pagan’s Storm and the Sea Ballad 5. The Cage
6. The Gathering
Witch ‘n’ Monk – Full Album credits
Label: Tzadik Records
Executive Producer: John Zorn
Associate Producer: Kazunori Sugiyama
Design: Heung-Heung Chin
Artwork: Witch ‘n’ Monk
Photos: Annemarie Sterian
All music composed and arranged by: Witch ’n’ Monk
Booking (worldwide excl. Benelux)
MUSIC [at] WITCHNMONK.COM
LINDA [at] STROOM.WS
m a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.