Album review – Arcana by Jef Stott
We’re big fans of San Francisco based artist Jef Stott. For over ten years he’s been making awesome Eastern-inflected electronica of the kind we love. He has worked with master musicians from the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and India. He’s a highly accomplished multi instrumentalist and we particularly like the fact he’s using the oud in a global bass electronica context.
He has just released a new album, Arcana. It comes in the wake of much personal turmoil: the end of a long-term relationship, losing a career job and having his apartment broken into. The thieves took all of his computer equipment, including the hard drive in which the two-month old Arcana lived.
Arcana has roots in Jef Stott’s expertise in Middle Eastern music, including studying with oud virtuoso Hamza El Din, and in his collaborations with many musicians over the years.
He says: ‘For Arcana, I started working with acoustic guitar.’ He added rich electronic sounds, and looped recordings of artists such as singer MC Rai, tabla player Jason McKenzie and multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills.
‘I kind of stepped out of the shadows on this one,’ Stott said. ‘What I was trying to do was just to be really open and lay it all out emotionally—that was my main goal with this record. I just went back into the studio and made this album. It’s about reclaiming my place in the world, and bringing really powerful female energy back into my life. The album is meant to be an imaginary soundtrack to an epic adventure film set far in the distant future. Behind it all is a really strong athletic female goddess with a huge sword in her hand. She’s a warrior of light. She’s always strong and compassionate, but she knows how to use her sword.’
Jef ran into old friend and collaborator Sonja Drakulich, which led to her providing vocals for the track Deep Playa. He had previously worked with her as producer for Stellamara, her Eastern/Medieval European and Arabic project. A new collaboration started when Jef met local indie singer Sophia Mae Lin, who contributes to Pulling of the Tide. Another old friend, MC Rai, provides vocals for Le Club Lebanon.
The album opens with Deep Playa. Some (what sounds to me like) throat singing leads into a heavy dubstep influenced synth bass line and funky drum line. Sonja Drakulich’s vocals take it into transcendent territory – a stunning opener for a collection of tunes.
The Promise follows, Indian bowed instruments and table to the fore. The pulsing bass remains, keeping things dancefloor friendly.
Semma starts with an evocative ney flute before the darbuka joins in and the bass returns to remind us we’re not in the desert anymore. This is relentless Middle-Eastern electronica, with the ney and some gorgeous strings riding a tide of brutal goove.
Next along we have Desert Dub (Jef Stott Nomadica RMX), which gives us a moment to get our breath back . There’s almost a dub feel to this spacious workout and it showcases Jef’s fine oud playing.
Hero’s Return introduces us to the bansuri, an Indian flute, masterfully played by Eliyahu Sills. Jef says: ‘There was a lot of editing in the bansuri parts because I didn’t want it to overpower the song. I had to find just little pockets and phrases that were going to complement the melody.’ This track takes us away from the dubstep influence and we hear some guitars in the mix.
Sophia Mae Lin’s vocals star in the next tune, Pulling of the Tide. Jef says: ‘I started the tune and it had this mysterious underwater quality, and we decided to go with the narrative about a mermaid. It’s an entirely new direction, very gothic and Celtic’. Once again, we’ve stepped away from the dubstep influence and there’s a an almost folky feel.
Gnawa Jam pulls us back with a jolt into a hard Moroccan influenced rhythmic workout which reintroduces the harder electronic sounds heard earlier in the collection.
We initially head for a quieter (but no less deep ) environment with Sayat Nova (Sendai Tsunami Dub). This is head nodding chillout music but still has some growly wobble bass that slowly builds the intensity.
We close the album with the downtempo White Tara (Anusara Mix). A Tara is a tantric deity in Tibetan Buddhism. The White Tara specifically refers to a healing goddess known as the Wish Fulfilling Wheel. This suitably beautiful closing tune features tabla and flute, acoustic guitar and Sophia Mae Lin’s vocal.
To summarise – a stunning, mature, accomplished album from a master musician.