Monday, 12 October 2015

The Value of Music

ZaNorte is the latest album from a friend of mine who goes by the musical name of Iceman Bob. If you have read a number of articles on this blog you may notice that earlier in the year we were discussing matters of mind and consciousness together. Over the couple of years I have known Bob I have found him to be a friendly, gracious and insightful man who often gives a different point of view than the expected or mainstream one. And I have more often than not welcomed this about him. Bob also makes music though when he is not discussing such things and he goes about it very much in his own way. I go about my music in my own way too and so I feel a certain kinship with him  - even though these ways are not always the same.

People listen to music for many differing reasons. Often, of course, it is simply for entertainment and what is required is a sugary hit of something sweet, non-challenging and expected. It would be easy for me to be snobbish about this and decry it and, if that's all there is to your music listening, then I probably would. From the very beginning of my blogging I have spoken about music being something that fulfills many roles and that is multi-faceted in its use. One role I see for music is that of something that challenges our preconceptions and ideas about what music itself is as well as more mundane matters of what good and bad taste are for you. One reason I have always liked Bob's music is that it can, at times, be a challenge to listen to. Bob seems very set on doing things a certain way with the set up that he has (a couple of laptops, some synths and guitars) and it would be very easy to define an "Iceman Bob sound". You can take this two ways of course. You could decry the lack of variety or you could explore the sound that Bob makes and see what you could make of it. Of course, to do either you'd need to interact with his work first. And you should.

Bob's latest album, in a growing list of work available on his Bandcamp page, is called ZaNorte which is short for Zamboanga del Norte, a region of the Philippines from which he has just returned to his native Montana. The music and the titles of the tracks (which are mostly in a native Filipino language with the English in parenthesis beside it) bear witness to this trip and this has had an effect on the sound that Bob makes. Let me make it clear at this point that this is not to be a whitewash review of the album as Bob is my friend. On the contrary, whilst being a fan and supporter of his work for a while now I have not been so uncritically. In the past I have especially taken issue with Bob's guitar sound (which I think would benefit from more variety). In ZaNorte, however, we find that the guitar is often absent and on the one track where it notably takes the lead, Dalugdug ug Kilat (Thunder and Lightning), we find Bob at his most melodious.

So what then is ZaNorte? First of all, its a huge piece of work. Whilst most of the track lengths are down on Bob at his most prolific (tracks in the 15 minute range are not unusual) here the 8-10 minute range is par for the course. But there are 20 tracks to the album which is nigh on 3 hours in length. I have already listened to it through completely 3 times though and it didn't feel like it was dragging in any way at all. The album then, in its entirety, is an absolute pleasure to listen to. This is Iceman Bob at his chilled and relaxed best. There is also a mellowness to some of the tracks. The harshness and unfamiliarity that can sometimes be there in some of his work is here almost completely absent. (There is, though, one track, Maya (white beak sparrow), which I find completely unlistenable. It sounds to me like the rhythm from one track and the tune from another spliced together in a way that doesn't fit.) This album felt to me as I listened like a warm day on a beach in the shade of palm trees and the music was a gentle breeze wafting over me.

One reason for this is that I think due to the circumstances of the recording (I understand this was recorded away from Bob's main studio with a reduced setup) Bob had to tailor his music to his new circumstances. I would say that this has made the music more amenable. This is the most listenable Iceman Bob album I have yet heard. However, that is by Bob's own standards and to those coming to it for the first time it may still sound challenging. But this is always the reason I have been attracted to Bob's work. Bob has the gift of making music that is not beholden to formulaic rules or mainstream ideas. He does what he wants and has a free attitude to what is possible. Often things will not be in time or seemingly at odds with other sections of the same song. Things will sound unfamiliar and challenging in a way that can easily be disturbing. The challenge is to stay onside with the course that is being plotted and see it through to the end. ZaNorte makes it even more possible than usual that you will be able to do this as a listener. I'm particularly in awe of the way that Bob has been able to do this over the course of an album with so many tracks. As most musicians would realize, the more tracks you do, the more chance there is that you dilute the overall quality. Not so here. The quality has been kept up throughout.

So ZaNorte is a chilled and relaxing trip to the Philippines and many of the sounds used evoke an "ethnic" vibe and Bob has done that thing which all musicians should strive to do above all else: keep things interesting. The album is not boring or in any way stale and has the ability to evoke emotions and stimulate thought. (It did both for me.) As I like 19 of the 20 songs unreservedly I would give this album 19/20 as a review score. Its an album you should certainly download. You maybe won't play it on repeat every single day for the rest of your life. But there will be a time when it is the exact thing that you need. Its a great album to have in your collection. And its also a testament to the value of music, something which can soothe, challenge, encourage and entertain all at the same time.

You can download ZaNorte at and Iceman Bob is on Twitter at @iceman_bob

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