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Sigmatropic | Sixteen Haiku and Other Stories (Tongue Master)
OK, first the facts: this is an album derived from the haiku poetry of Nobel laureate George Seferis, with music by Akis Boyatzis who, with a band of like-minded fellow Greek musicians, calls himself Sigmatropic. A Greek version of this album was released in 2002, but Boyatzis has now created an international version utilising the same music, but with the poems translated into English and now featuring an impressive array of guest vocalists, with some very familiar names amongst them. So, that's a Greek take on traditional Japanese poetry, set to Greek electronica, and sung by Brits and Yanks. Some brew.
The disc opens with some church bells, some big drums, some very Craig Armstrong film-soundtrack music, and Robert Wyatt doing his fragile non-singing thing. So far, so moody. Following tracks are gentler and with acoustic elements sweetening the sound - Haiku 1 sung by Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab), and Haiku 2, sung by Martine Roberts (Broken Dog), instill a Cocteau Twins feel, before the ever-expressive Mark Mulcahy does a bit of a Sylvian thing on Haiku 3. The variety and brevity of the tracks (an inevitable shortcoming of the haiku form) ensures a strong 'soundtrack' feel to the whole thing, but there's a unifying, almost dramatic, element in the rhythms and the different voices singing and speaking the short, oft-repeated lines. Things shuffle and throb along nicely, with contributions from the stellar cast that includes the likes of Mark Eitzel, Howe Gelb, Alejandro Escovedo, Cat Power, Steve Wynn and James William Hindle. All find themselves in unfamiliar territory here, a world away from their traditional musical environs. And this is where the album's appeal is found, in this curious melding of tradition and form. Populated across its twenty-two tracks with alumni of the lo-fi school (including Simon Joyner and Lee Ranaldo), it's only artists with a naturally dramatic voice, such as John Grant (The Czars) or James Sclavunos (The Bad Seeds, The Vanity Set), or the seductive tones of Pinkie Maclure, Edith Frost or Carla Torgerson (The Walkabouts) who really seem at home here. You'll catch many flavours - from Tom Waits to New Order ?? but it's the Greek and the strange that percolates up through the lyrics. Blue skies, bees, clear seas, heavy breasts in mirrors, jasmine, goddesses, and statues all feature, with the elements and nature the dominant themes.
'Sixteen Haiku & Other Stories' demonstrates the success of eclecticism, of mixing digital sounds and beats with some of the most organic singers you could wish for, with various stringed instruments counteracting the potentially new-age vibe. It all makes for a dramatically unique listening experience.

Chris Wick
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003