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Black Sun Ensemble - Starlight

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Artist: Black Sun Ensemble

Album: Starlight

Label: Camera Obscura

Review date: Oct. 24, 2003

Black Sun Ensemble’s Jesus Acedo returns, following up last year’s Hymn of the Master with 11 new slow-burning songs from the depths of the southwestern desert. As always, one can’t help but focus on Acedo’s blasted guitar work, but this time around there’s more balance as well. Contributions from other Arizona luminaries, returning from the previous album, include Eric Johnson, Brian Maloney, and Joseph Graves.

Starlight is, in some ways, a bit of a transitional record, with a wider range of songwriting and a broader palette of sounds. For the most part this is still Acedo’s show, but the focus is blurred by elements like Graves’ vocal contributions, keyboard riffs, and broader sax accompaniment, as well as some songwriting by Johnson.

The album’s opener, “Jewel of the Seven Stars”, is a perfect introduction. It builds slowly but surely upon an eastern-tinged banjo, like a trek across a wasteland of desert sand and a hot, hot sun. Sax and clarinet drone in the background, with simple congas providing momentum – it’s a beautiful, cavernous ride. “Loki’s Monstrous Brood” immediately starts out heavier, not the only song here to bring a bit of a modern King Crimson feel. Thick guitars and a vaguely prog-rock punkiness, the churning rock is tastefully decorated by Maloney’s sax. “The Lycian” opens with a Farflung-like space-rock riff, then hits a dense, descending series of power chords and thick, distorted leads. This also feels reminiscent of recent Crimson, in a good way.

“I Am I Was” reminds me just a bit of Dream Syndicate, with jangly strummed guitars and Eric Johnson’s mildly wasted voice, both catchy and melancholy. The song comes to a fake end halfway through, then morphs into fine guitar-led jamming. “Remedios Rising” offers up a drifting, deep-space ambience that builds ever so slowly out of ebb-and-flow guitar waves, with the sax taking a fairly sedate center stage, while “Mascara Moon” really heats up its fuzzed-out guitar groove when the guitar lead cuts loose. With the able sax accompaniment, it feels nicely Stooges-esque.

There are parts of the album that do not work as well. While the keyboard riff at the center of “Arabic Satori” is great (go Fender Rhodes), Graves’ spoken word, sort of chanted vocals, never quite fit in comfortably. Then again, it’s pretty rough to make stream-of-consciousness nonsense poetry work in the best of circumstances. “Starlight” suffers from the same problem, with somewhat abstract instrumentation and rather stiff spoken word delivery. My least-favorite song here, though, has to be “Sunbeam Angel”. A slow ballad, of sorts, it carries all the baggage that entails. It’s somewhat pretty, but the delicate guitar work and crooning vocals simply sound artificial and calculatedly polished. For pretty sentiments, it’s telling that the instrumental “Tralaine”, and its really nice acoustic guitar work, communicates far more.

New work from Black Sun Ensemble is always something to look forward to, and Starlight, despite some off moments, is a fine addition to the canon. The nearly 10-minute “Jewel of the Seven Stars” is practically worth the price of admission on its own, but there’s much more to appreciate here as well.

By Mason Jones

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