Simon Price is best known for being the singer and guitarist in acclaimed Bristolian psych-rock band The Heads, in my mind the closest this country has come to matching the outrageous, frenetic and mind-frying freak-metal of Japanese legends Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO. But for this solo project, Price has departed considerably from his band’s full-on, hard-hitting formula in favour of a series of considered, spacious ambient mood pieces.
A lot has been made of Price’s upbringing in Malawi and Zambia, and of the fact that this debut is intended to reflect on those countries, all the way down to the project and album’s name, lifted as they are from a chain of Malawian supermarkets. But Price is obviously a learned and thoughtful musician and composer, and as such, the nine tracks that make up kandodo are much more oblique, nebulous and abstract than the semi-defined concept would suggest. The wide savannas of southern Africa are captured somewhere between the lines on kandodo, but Price does not fall into the trap of blatantly trying to conjure up some sort of facile world music-inspired psychogeography.
For starters, this is a guitar album, as befits a man who has given the trusty electric axe the kind of heathen worship to rival Makoto Kawabata or Randy Holden. But where songs by The Heads are often as compact as they are freaky, on kandodo Price stretches out, taking advantage of the spaces left by removing drums (mostly) to explore the possibilities of his six-string. ‘Laud the Hyena’, the album’s lysergic second track, is built around a series of slow-building arpeggios, laden with echo and reverb around which he builds minimal percussive vibrations, creating an atmosphere of wide-open vistas and harsh landscape. Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack immediately springs to mind, although ‘Laud the Hyena’ is noticeably more focused, whilst the molten textures of the guitar hint at a certain respectful unease – probably, let’s be honest, the best way to feel when dealing with a hyena. Intriguingly, whilst the title anchors the music in that continent, Price’s guitar sound is nonetheless born of an Anglo-American tradition, and, as noted by the Dead Man comparison, could easily be used to soundtrack a series of shots of Death Valley, something which carries through the entire album, from the shimmering, Eno-esque ‘Yamadharma’ to the closing epic ‘Lord Hyena, 3am’, which is dominated by shady vibrato and doom-laden riffs.
By blending the images in his head, lifted from his youth, with the traditions of instrumental guitar rock he’s picked up since returning to the UK and plugging into the rock tradition, Price hoists the music of kandodo out of bland specificity and into a sort of cosmic universality. His guitar playing is so precise, it instantly brings images and emotions to the fore, and he only needs the most minimal of embellishments to get his vision across (muted drums on the sinister ‘Witchdoctor’, faded field recordings on ‘Dawn Harmonix’ and ‘Kandodo’), coming across at times like a sparser and less urbane Durutti Column. The flaw to this approach is that, by restricting many of his tracks to slender movements untethered by time, and only vaguely anchored by geography, this music drifts rather than absorbs, sometimes to its detriment. There’s a lot of feeling to the tracks on kandodo, it’s just not often easy to know what the feeling is. ‘Witchdoctor’ and ‘Shangri Last’, for example, are dark and foreboding, whilst the two ‘Hyena’ tracks are filled with trepidation and cautious awe. Meanwhile, the title track is spacious and elegiac, without having a direct atmospheric or melodic connection to those that precede and follow it. kandodo can therefore feel a bit disjointed, although perhaps in the way that Eno & Harmonia’s Tracks & Traces did: maybe these nine tracks are intended merely to be sketches, with the titles misguidingly indicating a concept that isn’t really there.
Whatever the case, this is still engaging and beautiful music, masterfully created by an artist looking to expand his horizons beyond the sonic conventions associated with himself. kandodo is also a perfect late-night album, one that resonates best when experienced in quiet solitude.