Okapi is an avant-rock duo that utilize upright bass, cello and voice for its compositions and performances. Their music is complex but also approachable, with lyrics that are thick, deep and somewhat inscrutable. They also have both black & white and color videos with lots of melting imagery and a cold European flavor. This is the part where I tell you they’re from East Germany, but to my great shock they’re actually based in Asheville, North Carolina! Their new album is titled Carousel (Part II) which you can guess is a follow-up to Carousel (Part 1).
Okapi regard themselves as “…a unique, intellectual, and valuable group whose work has a timeless quality. Our music is direct, confrontational and well-crafted, but also intimate and inviting. The ‘Carousel’ represents the environment around us that's created by external forces, which have the potential to shape us as individuals. To step off this moving carousel is to embark on a personal journey of confronting the true reality, as well as oneself.”
In another weird twist, Illinois native Scott Mitchell Gorski (vocals/upright bass) met Missouri native Lindsay Paige Miller (cello) through a Craigslist ad! Miller is a classically trained cellist but was looking for a direction beyond the music conservatory. Gorski, a self-taught bassist and singer, was seeking “new and inventive avenues outside of traditional music.” Together they wound up creating the art they wanted to experience themselves. Gorski’s lyrics are influenced by “existential philosophies, the growth of the individual, and environmental consciousness.” Recording and mixing was by Greg Norman at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, with mastering by Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service.
For myself, I found the music of Okapi to be immediately fresh and unusual, though there are antecedents. Some of their approach is similar to the classic 1980’s avant-garde groups The Motor Totemist Guild (recently reformed) and the 5 UU’s, as well as the more avant-classical leanings of indie superstar Amy Denio. To stretch it further, fans of Gentle Giant’s classical tendencies may find much of interest here.
“Carousel” begins the album showcasing one of the band’s favored techniques, which is tapping or hitting their instruments with their hands or striking their muted strings for various percussive effects, as can be seen in the video for this song. In fact, watching this group’s videos is a great way to more quickly grasp what’s going on musically, as the bass and cello are sometimes hard to separate in one’s mind at first. Regardless, once the music and vocals start, they rarely take a break. The melodies are esoteric and exotic, but sometimes lock into what is indisputably a rock groove, even if just for a few bars. The imagery is vivid, to wit: “Amongst ornamentations of our carousel / We all look out to see / Kaleidoscopic views beneath / The blurred but indiscreet.” The video for this track is quite striking, with carnival rides and eerie cutout silhouettes dancing around the flashing colors.
“Through the Teeth” starts on a more classical footing, with darkly gorgeous cello melodies. There’s a fine pizzicato section interspersed with almost stabbing strikes of the cello bow. Gorski again sing-speaks his lyrics in a voice that’s precise and insinuating without overwhelming the music. At about three-and-a-half minutes there’s a wonderful droning section that I could have listened to forever. Kudos to recordist Greg Norman for the clean resonance of both stringed instruments.
“The Hand” begins with more hand percussion, then creates a kind of Handmaid’s Tale of the mind. Creepy, but melodically inventive, especially the fast section at the very end. “The Ferryman” has no lyrics, but musically portrays an old, wise, solitary man who operates a ferry at a desolate river. Many of his riders tell him sins, secrets and dreams. The music evokes the sound and feel of the old man’s oar hitting the boat, the water splashing and the rush of soul catharsis from the riders.
“Mirror of Majesties” starts with riffs that sound like boogie-woogie, which are then overlaid with heavy-metal like cello melodies. Though the lyrics are typically dark, this track is probably the most accessible to new listeners, especially if you watch the amazing black & white video that intercuts performance footage with weaving machines, broken windows and insects. It’s almost like orchestral Metallica.
“Child Kingdom” reverts to the chamber-music sound of the group, with more unsettling lyrics: “Can you see beyond the trees? / Did you climb the highest peak? / Have you found comfort in the mirror that you chose to hold? / Do you see you, or those who froze? Who knows?” This track has a slow, gentle swing to the rhythms I really enjoyed. The concluding composition “Wild Animals” does indeed evoke wild animals groaning and whining on the tundra. An especially nice melody appears after the first two verses, with the music slowly becoming more strident as the vocals continue. As it happens, the animals appear to be a metaphor: “Are my wild animals now free / Or in their cage, by carousel decree? / If part of them is still awake / Will they know what's at stake?”
This is not an album you will “get” with a short click of a Spotify link, but with open ears and an open mind, you’ll encounter a new and striking kind of music that will surely reward your attention. I hope the “Carousel” that Okapi is on never slows down!
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