OK so I can work out that it’s by Sokratis Malamas but the rest is in Greek script, all of it (except the words ‘analog synth’ in the musicians’ credits – more of which later) so it’s… all Greek to me. The album cover’s got folk instruments, lauto, guitar, accordion, double bass, jazz drum set up. So I think Eastern Mediterranean jazz; on the back is the singer, not young. I google and find Malamas, born 1957, obviously a reasonably big name in Greece, but this 2014 release is more difficult to track down. It’s not yet on his Wikipedia. Eventually, I find it’s called To Adeio Domatio – Afigisi II. Not that that helps much.
Track 1 opens with gruff, growly vocals over guitar. It’s growlier than Bob Dylan with a sore throat. If a voice is whiskey-soaked, Malamas probably needs a liver transplant. It’s a good start. Pleasant major-minor key shifts place it in the Eastern Med.
Track 2 brings in exploratory accordion with high-pitched octaves over a steel-string groove. It has a Celtic-Galician feel. There are hints that this is not a folky production.
Track 3 is more mellow. The vocals are framed by oriental lauto melodies with moments of Spanish flair backed by sumptous strings. Whilst Malamas (and much Greek music) is about lyrics, I feel the music and sentiment is interesting, well-produced, and I enjoy it without understanding the words. Malamas has a kind of flat vocal delivery. It means the emotion is in the music.
Track 4 starts to take this album in different, surprising directions. Suddenly there are psychedelic electronic swirls of sound between the vocals – presumably from that analog synth. When Kristi Stassinoploulou and Stathis Kalviotis released their album Greekadelia internationally it felt like they were pioneering in bringing contemporary production to Greek folk music, but of course it was just that they were distributed internationally, so we got to hear about it, and there must be many local productions doing interesting similar stuff. Malamas is more rocky than Stassinoploulou and Kalviotis, with drums driving the rhythm, but you also feel he’s produced an experimental, unusual album.
If you’d been wondering whether this voice can get any gruffer, track 5 show that Malamas could hold his own against any Mongolian throat singer. Again there are plenty of rocky-psychy electro effects between understated vocals. But they don’t dominate – you can hear buzzing strings of the acoustic bass matching the grittiness of the voice. I like it.
In Track 6 the lauto has the main riff. Its double strings have a natural chorus effect, the original way to provide depth and enigma before Moog.
Track 7 sets up a folk-rock groove. The twangy lauto leads into words spoken with heavy echo, as if Malamas was on a soapbox with a megaphone, and quickly into a feelgood rock chorus. The dirty chaos keeps growing in the background. I turn it up. It feels a bit angry, elemental, anthemic, and gets me smiling. I’d play this in a club. It’s called Thiasos and I’ve found it here a 2009 upload, so the material on this CD is older than I thought.
After this album centrepiece track 8 has to be more toned-down. Steel string guitar starts slower. But when the vocals come in they are matched immediately by an electronic growl in the background. This analog synth is obviously a more important feature of this production than it would seem from the album cover. Lauto gives a strong, un-ornamented, straight hard melody in keeping with something very direct about the whole production. It heads breifly into space before finishing abruptly.
Track 9 is back to ballad with a simple matching of acoustic bass and guitar. The big chorus, nicely, doesn’t materialise. The song hangs in the air. Sagapo.
10 has an ambiguos harmonic sequence. By now I’ve got used to those nonchalent vocals tickling my belly with their low frequencies. The closely-miked drums are tasteful here.
In 11 the vocals have an Italian melodic feel. It’s less oriental, and I’ve not tired of the analog whooshes yet. Over the fast repetitive rhythm there’s an expansive violin. It’s the soundtrack to a motor-bike road movie through the spectacular Greek mountain landscape of Meteora. I’d like to hear this live, when no doubt the band could spin it out more.
The last track returns to just guitar and voice with every detail of both clear and crisp, and if I hear the words correctly, possibly something about a balcony in the night.
Verdict: A bit of underground, a bit of overground from a seasoned pro. If you get tired of the well-mannered, super-reasonable voice of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis on your TV over the next months, try this for a bit of Greek grit.