17 Pygmies: Isabel

I was so captivated by 17 Pygmies' Celestina trilogy (2008's Celestina, 2011's CII: Second Son, and 2012's CIII: Even Celestina Gets The Blues (A Tale of Love and Quantum Physics)) that I was sorry to see it end—until, that is, I learned that the long-standing group had plans for a new cosmic space opera to pick up where Celestina left off. And so here we are once more, this time with the first part of a planned Isabel trilogy that, based on the evidence at hand, promises to be as satisfying as its predecessor. Led by Jackson Del Rey on vocals, synthesizer, guitar, and bass, the band in its current formation features Meg Maryatt, whose vocals are a key element of the 17 Pygmies sound, and guitarist Jeff Brenneman and drummer Dirk Doucette (a handful of guests makes key contributions, among them Jean Sudbury on violin and viola).

The band has presented the release with its customary care, with the CD accompanied by a booklet containing the first part of The Book of Isabel and housed within a hand-crafted, string-art covered sleeve (a comic book version of the project is also in the works). The short story has familiar signposts of a standard sci-fi text—cyborgs and looming battles, for example—and understandably shifts the focus away from the female robot Celestina to Dr. Amelia Isabel, another passenger on the Celestina (the name shared by the ship and character).

What recommends the release most, however, is that if one regards Isabel as a prog-styled release, in many ways it goes against the genre grain. In place of fourteen-minute epics of the kind associated with Yes and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, 17 Pygmies present a twelve-part song cycle, and in contrast to a genre known for bombast and overkill, the group favours delicacy and understatement. Virtuosic noodling is eschewed in place of tasteful playing designed to serve the song in question. The tone of the album is ponderous and reflective, the music often unfolding in a measured lilt and presented in a chamber music style. Luscious on sonic grounds, the album's pretty tapestries are liberally dressed up in strings, glockenspiels, synthesizers, and guitars (acoustic and electric), with the overall sound exemplifying orchestral and classical tonalities. Instrumentals dominate, though vocal songs judiciously appear to break up the instrumental flow.

Changes of mood are subtly effected, such that the splendour of the opening part segues into the brooding second and wistful third. An occasional dark chapter appears amidst sunnier ones—the portentous fifth, for instance, where ominous washes drape themselves across a base of synth-burbling IDM. In addition, there's the proggy seventh, a rare uptempo track where electric guitar and “O Superman”-styled vocals front the urgent charge; the trippy ninth, whose sleigh bells, tablas, and surbahar (bass sitar) give the vocal song a quasi-psychedelic vibe; and the brooding, neo-folk eleventh, whose lyrics (“Red was the colour…”) reference the traditional folk song “Black Is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair).” Isabel is a true headphones listen, too, as many tiny touches become more noticeable the closer one attends—the soft-as-a-whisper background vocals behind Maryatt's unaffected singing in the haunting third part an example. 17 Pygmies cite a number of musical touchstones for the release, with Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Lamb-era Genesis, and Christopher Young among them, but, to its credit, the group ends up sounding more like 17 Pygmies than any of them.

June 2013