Mrudangam is a style of South Indian percussion. This is primarily what Rajna Swaminathan leads with on her album ‘Of Agency and Abstraction’. Using her ultimate rhythmic skill, she weaves a groovy tapestry that straddles Indian jazz and seductive folklore. It is a difficult album to describe but it is also one of the most unique releases in 2019.
Across the twelve tracks the violin, trumpet, tenor saxophone, guitar and bass act as one collective movement. In many of the tracks, things feel inherently seductive or sneaky. It comes from the muted tones of all the instruments and how they often pair up to purr quietly such as in ‘Offering’ or ‘Peregrination’. Vocals only appear on a couple of tracks thanks to Ganavya Doraiswarmy on the caravan-esque ‘Departures’. ‘Vagabonds’ is calmer and lighter vocally but also feels most like a traditional song in terms of structure.
These songs all pave the way for the sublime percussive talents of Rajna Swaminathan. There is a four-track suite in the middle which Rajna calls the ‘Agency and Abstraction Suite’ and these tracks run seamlessly together. Starting from the vocal ‘Departures’ ‘Ripple Effect’ moves into folksy territory. ‘Communitas’ is one of the most uplifting pieces – led by the sax and trumpet whilst feeling Turkish in tone. ‘Retrograde’ closes that suite out by moving the smash-up of Indian and Persian influences into slinky lounge jazz celebration.
This floating genre-stretching nowhere land does make the album quite a difficult sell to get into at times. Rajna Swaminathan refuses to take her percussive nature to excess either. It’s a mainstay and very expressive but never the outright centrepiece. Outside of the simply beautiful ‘Chasing the Gradient’ and the meditative eruptions of ‘Yathi’, you’ll not find big hooks either. Instead, this album feels like it is trying to balance floating between outright melodies and freeform music expression. It doesn’t feel improvised but it purposefully avoids hooks, bridges, choruses or verses. It is an album that demands your attention to appreciate its detail but doesn’t want to pull you in with earworms either.
It’s that very reason which is why I think this album will be a wildly divisive one. There is an awful lot of talent involved here and the production, groove and sonic feelings that take place are ones to contemplate or reflect on. The problem is that whilst there are memorable moments in a song, most songs also go out of their way to be a little awkward too and if you aren’t gelling with it after two or three listens, you’ll likely not want to return. A difficult but rewarding piece of work if it clicks. Give it a few spins before deciding then add or take a point off the score below depending on your first impressions.
Recommended track: Departures
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