Echoes June 2019 CD of the Month : Desert Dwellers’ “Breath”

It began with Jon Hassell’s first mutated trumpet breath of techno-tribal music, which went through to Steve Roach’s Aboriginal trekking with Dreamtime Return, and then Banco de Gaia took the last train to Lhasa sampling the world. Electronic musicians have been wiring the global village for sound for a long time. One of the more joyful exponents has been Desert Dwellers, a collective centered by Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe, who have been at it for 20 years now, and have just released their most fully realized album yet, Breath. The members of Desert Dwellers are as at home in a yoga studio as a Burning Man stomp, and Breath splits the difference with a joyful ride of shifting patterns and free-floating melodies, all centered by an unerring groove.

Breath is ostensibly the 4th element in their DownTemple Dub series, the Air element. (The second volume, Flame, was a CD of the Month in 2006.) It opens on a meditative note with “Praise Her, the Fire Keeper”, a deep inhalation of a low deep throb of ominous bass, wind effects, and mellotron-ish distant choirs. Those sounds provide the landscape for Lynda Arnold’s slow, tremolo-draped flute solos, Haana’s space-sculpting violin and Meagan Chandler’s Gaelic chant. Chandler is the secret spice in Breath. She sings in Gaelic, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Welsh on five different songs, some adapted from folk songs, although the effect is more of an imaginary language ala Lisa Gerrard than linguistic gymnastics.

It’s a pensive opening for the Dwellers, but they turn-on the groove with “Dreams Within a Dream,” a cinematically portentous rhythm, with Afshin Sadechi sending out a clangorous santur riff that calls up the spirit, before Joaguin Gallegos begins firing up some flamenco fury. It’s a typical Dwellers’ track in that it begins in one place and drops you off somewhere unknown, where sounds float rhythm free, and often backwards, zipping your consciousness into flashback.

This may be the most organic Desert Dwellers album yet with more feel of live musicians and fewer samples. Whether it’s Gayan’s talking drums on “To Be Air,” or Lynda Arnold’s flutes on several tracks, Breath actually breathes with the sound of humans playing. Although electronic grooves and textures are the elements that turn Breath cinematic, it’s the Middle Eastern sonic arrays of Ma-Ze Tar, playing the stringed oud and dilruba as well as the ney flute, and the percussion of Drumspyder, that enliven tracks like “Traversing the Endless Road.”

Desert Dwellers’ music is a journey through exotic worlds, a revolving door of sound that spins the listener into new vistas. “Closed Eyes in a Dust Storm,” sounds like an Indian vortex until the distressed electronic accents set in, elevating the piece to another plane. Sitars spin out cyclical melodies that fray and shower down on the electro-twanged groove. “Longing for Home,” on the other hand, sounds like Japanese ritual music from the future, with Madi Sato intoning chant-like vocals, Dan Root Flute blowing shakuhachi whispers, and Hoji Nakamura spinning taiko drum rim shots around the downtempo electronic groove and synth melodies.

While Desert Dwellers are usually happy to just pillage sounds of eastern music, on Breath, they actually cover a song called “Nassam Alyan El Hawa,” made famous by the iconic Lebanese singer Fairuz. They call it “At Last, Our Refuge” and it is unrecognizable, as the Dwellers slow it way down and surround it with an ambient landscapes and plaintive flute from Lynda Arnold.

Desert Dwellers’ Breath is an ecstatic dervish of sound that sustains across all its 76-minutes of global trance

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