Ak’chamel is the stage name of a duo performing what can best be described as psyche-folk. They have come to ProgBlog’s attention because they’re currently promoting a new vinyl release, The Totemist. They describe themselves as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘mysterious’, a depiction that I can’t disagree with – we’re given no names, no instrumentation, no background other than they’re ‘fourth world post-colonial cultural cannibalists circumcising the foreskin of enlightenment’ from a ‘border state’, their name is appended with the title ‘The Giver of Illness’, and did I mention they wear home-made costumes and masks during performances? Digging out a Q&A piece with Ak’chamel in Anon magazine from November 2014 actually confirms they’re from Texas but gives very little else away. For instance: (Q) A lot of people want fame and money when they produce something artistic, but with being an anonymous person/group, are your goals different? (A) Yes.
The Totemist is Ak’chamel’s first studio-quality album – their back catalogue is available on cassette – and it’s well recorded and presented. It’s actually easy to guess that they’re from Texas when they describe themselves as being from a border state and that some of the writing and recording occurred in the Chihuahuan Desert, where overdubs and field recordings were captured in an ancient burial ground, but anonymity seems to suit a band that write songs about animal spirits.
Though we might not know who they are, the information above hints at what you might expect when the needle hits the run-in groove for opening track Firedriver, without fully preparing you for what’s to come. Firedriver develops from strident strummed string instruments over a trippy keyboard wash which gives way to an uneasy electric piano riff and a dreamy guitar melody which is more straightforward gentle folk than psyche. The Funeral of a Woman Whose Soul is Trapped in the Sun begins in a similar vein, gentle, with softly chanted words, coming across like genuine respectful observance of someone’s life. A little over half way through there’s a passage dominated by tom toms before guitar is reintroduced. There’s no melodic development but you are drawn into a trance-like state as though you’ve just ingested some Lophophora williamsii. The mood changes about six minutes into the piece when a repeating phrase of zither played over ambient ocean sounds and birdsong is introduced, continuing until the end of the track. This peyote experience is deepened on Protected by the Ejaculation of Serpents where a looped male voice chant gives way to the first real snatches of acoustic psychedelia with sitar, bells, harmonium and flute. There is plenty of space within the instrumentation despite multiple layers of sound as it runs at a laid back pace; the upright bass work is particularly effective, and the composition takes on a world-music feel with more ritual chanting before ending.
Dark Hat commences with an almost Middle-Eastern hypnotic groove on guitar and flute. There’s more density to the sound at the beginning of the song, giving a darker, more oppressive feel and there’s limited development of ideas in keeping with the idea of ritual. The end is a little like a bad trip where the music is played backwards. To Travel the Path of Every Sickness is the shortest track on the album at three and a half minutes but is another densely layered piece, though to the credit of band who self-produced the record, the individual instruments are quite clear over harmonium and vocal drones.
Phallus Palace is the longest track, with the best development of ideas. It begins with a more discernible melody line, speeding up as eastern sounds are introduced. About one third of the way through the percussion stops and the groove is replaced by a lengthy section of strummed string instruments describing a trippy riff, sitar motifs and spacey theremin while the drums build up again. Three quarters of the way through the rhythm pattern stops once again and the mood changes to devotional or one of contemplation, with a harmonium drone and a low-pitch, quiet recital. The track resolves with guitar and bells.
This album is very different from the normal ProgBlog fare but it does just about fit into a Venn diagram of prog. The specific genre may be niche (if not unique) but the instrumentation and application allow the ‘world’, ‘folk’ and ‘psyche’ tags. It’s unusual, very interesting, has a wide range of different instruments that are really well-played, the production is excellent, and the whole LP is much less gloomy than the band’s name suggests. Ak’chamel even suggest that the record has a ‘lighter tone’ than their past, oppressively lo-fi sound, though on the other hand they delight in informing us that the Terlingua cemetery used for field recordings is populated by miners who died from mercury poisoning!
I’d recommend The Totemist to anyone into psyche-folk or even dark prog, and anyone who likes challenging world music. If you’re only interested in shamanistic-themed New Age CDs, you should probably give it a miss.
The Totemist by Ak'chamel is out now on Akuphone AKU1023
Ak'chamel - Firedriver
Album review: Ak'chamel - The Totemist (2020)