CD REVIEW: Black String - Mask Dance



Black String - Mask Dance
(ACT Music 9036-2. CD Review by Dan Bergsagel)

At a time when the terms 'world music' and 'fusion' are often used in a vaguely disparaging way, Mask Dance strikes a triumphant chord as an intriguing mix of Korean tradition and Western contemporary music. Producing a varied sound palette from unfamiliar instruments, this seven-track album presents an insight into the subtle middle ground between cultures that Yoon Jeong Heo and Black String continue to probe following a Korea-UK cultural exchange programme in 2011.

To a UK ear the instrumentation alone provides an engaging opening, with Seven Beats introducing the traditional Korean bamboo flutes, the Daegeum and the Danso, punctuated by the careful, then driving electric guitar of Jean Oh. Rolling percussion from Min Wang Hwang become something of a theme, as the cautious initial melody develops to a pressing rock climax.

The introduction of Oh's rocky electric guitar provides the most clear cross-culture comparisons, however the almost imperceptible taps and pops at the start of Growth Ring produce a stark contrast from the fundamentally contemporary electronica, to the millenia-old searching of Aram Lee's Daegeum sailing over it.

The core of much of the Korean sound, the long alligator-esque Geomungo (fretted zither) played by Heo centre stage, has its many moods: the clean tradition of Song from Heaven contrasted with the bowed interest of Flowing, Floating and the knowingly ethereal and discordant Strangeness of the Moon. However often it provides a un-hurried composure to counteract the contemporary cut of the electric guitar's brief minimalist chord progressions.

The liner notes quote Heo's description of Korean music as “powerful... beautiful… valuable”, and perhaps this comes off strongest in the atmospheric Dang, Dang, Dang, a probing vibrant piece with the band joining together in unison, as well as tumbling apart to leave space for improvisation and tempo change. It presents traditional music in a raw light, in periods imbued with energy as much as it is restrained melancholy.

Black String is fundamentally about collaboration, motivated by a desire to make Korean traditional music accessible to a wider audience. As with celebrated Korean cinema, the title track Mask Dance does not shrink back from showcasing it's jauntier unsettling side – breathy moments and despairing yodels – while also restructuring into a Korean peninsula version of The Great Gig in the Sky, later with the epic feel and familiar rhythmic pattern of a modern rock jam.

As a first exploration into a Korean soundscape, Mask Dance is an excellent introduction for the developing dilettante. However with an understanding lost in the visual performance of unfamiliar instruments, the recordings leave me wishing more to catch the band live, instead.

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