Songs from a utopian dystopia…the room was filled with colours, voices and strings, a holistic sound bath; the dawn, the mist, the orange wall and a mosaic of craftsmanship
How little did I know when I first eavesdropped to the rough mix of Chris Dahlgren’s latest album?
Blissful and ignorant, caressed by a Berlin summer shower, I sat that Thursday afternoon to listen to the singer-songwriter’s latest musical endeavour. Last time before that I was sitting in his living room/recording room, I was still in school and he was working tirelessly to release his first work ever as a singer songwriter, after a journey of almost 25 years as a solo instrumentalist.
In the same room almost 10 years later, I had the chance to experience Dhalgren’s Brave new world, the first track of his second album Songs from a utopian dystopia. The room was filled with colours, voices and strings, a holistic sound bath; the dawn, the mist, the orange wall and a mosaic of craftsmanship.
That encounter took its place in my subconscious and I carried on with my residency in Berlin. Eventually I returned to Greece and to life as we knew it in 2018 through 2019 and up to the dramatic year 2020.
Fast forward to now, February 2021, a year after the apparition of the largest pandemic since HIV. No place for disillusionment, just plain concentration on the fact that science will shine. These past few months have been exhausting and full of unpleasant surprises.
The Greek state has started a war against the arts, public space is redefined and we are gradually coming to terms with restrictions that not only are absurd, but have nothing to do with safety and the sense of security that one seeks in times of vast insecurity. There are different coping mechanisms that humanity uses to diffuse stress and uncertainty. Music has always been one; playing or even just listening to your own whistle to a tune that some talented folk had the time and energy to sit down and write.
Now, more than ever, music is not just a pastime. Music is a way to endure the inevitable crash of the reality imagined with the reality imposed. I am thinking of that as I hold Dhalgren’s album in my hands, staring obstinately at the title: Songs from a dystopian utopia, as the music floods the room. I am searching for a way out of my room, in which I have been sitting the past year, and into a mental space that will resemble the actual act of travelling.
This is what happens when the acoustic guitar and rusty voice of Chris Dahlgren escape the stereo to expand into a 10 m2 room. The first stroke of the guitar in Brave new world offers a way into Alice’s wonderland and sets the tone for the Huxleyan atmosphere of the entire album. As the song unfolds, the wizardry of Arne Braun and Sidney Werner set the tone for the eerie musical ambience that will follow.
The warm sound of Arne Braun’s electric guitar and of the viola da gamba by Chris Dahlgren, are a soft nudge leading to If I would ask you; a mental meadow, a shower of drums and cymbals built by Evi Filippou and Alfred Vogel, around the mellow bass of Sidney Werner. All put together to reach the voices of countless little blue flowers opening calyxes to the golden sun. The story evolves into an interlude. Not so much in form, rather than in its feeling of irrationality. Vogel’s swing, mingling with Filippou’s vibes and Braun’s guitar solo to create a sound that could claim its roots in the far west, but also in the Nordic forests. A ballad would be the appropriate sequent; Ampharool. The spiritual journey in the mind of a man in search of answers, followed by a smooth bossa nova inspired by the soviet sci-fi novel “Roadside Picnic”; a joyful invitation into a minimal rhythmic construction adorned by the strings and dreamy voices of the band.
Suddenly I have sunk into a void of relaxation only to be greeted by Monday starts on Saturday. The swift is evident. The sense of asphyxiation and intensity interrupted by a sweet idyll and then back to chaos again. The acoustic paranoia seems to be fitting the kind of dystopia I have been experiencing in the capital of Greece the last couple of months, a soundtrack of distorted TV news and absurdity. But this doesn’t last long; it is just a slight reminder that the world is not a dreamy place of smells and sounds and tastes of love and equality. Without reservation on the other hand, constructed on baglama and saxophone is a soft philosophical contemplation, dressed in Hayden Chisholm’s unique sound. And the dream is moving on, Farming, a spectral duet by Chris Dahlgren and Almut Kühne, an awry interpretation of a waltz that delightfully leads to Tara’s Song. This is the part where Americana meets the Far East and together they march to create this otherworldly chant to the Mother of Compassion, everything we think we are is but a dream/ a bubble floating on a stream.
It’s been almost an hour or maybe it’s been three months. I can hardly know anymore in this setting that time is endless. I have been travelling on the flying carpet of Dhalgren for a while now, as I land on the last track, Fairies’ song written by William Shakespeare. And if anyone wondered how this route could come to an end, this classic poem leads the way to a glorious ending. Almut Kühne reappears to melodically hold my hand with her outstanding voice towards the exodus. By the end of the song I am floating. A rejuvenating sense of balance has settled into my heart and I feel grateful for the healing properties of music and the incomparable vision of Dhalgren that keeps transforming a dull and despaired afternoon into a magical odyssey.
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