Review: As Above | So Below – The Unassumed

As Above - So Below - The Unassumed - coverThe oud and the banjitar. Alone in the pitch black. The only sensory presence here is the dialogue between these two instruments: one reeling out a line of plucked melody, the other concurring and querying through intermittent improvisation, joining in and dropping back, following the instinct that commands when to resound and when to fall silent. Through duration (both pieces are 18-19 minutes long), the connection between the two instruments intensifies. The music rolls like the wheel of a cart, goaded gradually into onward movement, reaching a point where the duet is simply coasting upon the urge of the subconscious, spinning blissfully around the solitary axel of harmonic theme. When one player migrates from one melody to the next ­– from a refrain that scales the fretboard like a ladder, to the ominous syncopated alternation of two notes – the other doesn’t falter. Instead, the duo accept the call for change and roll forth, accepting progression as if no other possibilities could ever exist.

I become increasingly enamoured by the textural contrast between the two instruments. The oud is slightly sharper in attack and more slender in movement; the banjitar carries that warmer pastoral twang, slightly more laboured in its vertical navigation of pitch, pressing its heel down into the earth while the oud rises to balance on its toes. And because these pieces are forever dancing up and down their respective melodic scales, I’m able to relish every possible intersection of their two modes of tuning. There are moments where the oud vaults off the banjitar’s microtonal ramps and vice versa, finding buoyance in the tension between the two approximations of the same note. I’m particularly spellbound by those fleeting passages where oud and banjitar replicate the same melodic pattern, thus highlighting the disparities in tonal spacing as the instruments climb upward and tumble down, effortlessly accepting of both their points of alignment and momentary divergences. Exquisitely done.