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The Graham Album Review #2193

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AO Music: Otherness

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/10/2024)

Over the last couple of decades, the world music scene has flourished, with artists either taking an authentic approach, accurately reviving a traditional style from some corner of the globe, or taking a more eclectic approach by mixing traditions, usually adding in a fair amount of Western pop influence. This week we have a new album from a group who are definitely in the latter category, mixing styles with abandon, and along the way concocting their own seemingly world music styles and even inventing languages. It’s the new seventh studio album by the group AO Music, called Otherness.

AO Music’s two founders and principle members are St. Louis born and raised Richard Gannaway and Jay Oliver. Gannaway gravitated toward the rock world and was a co-founder of an alternative band called Tiger & the Helix, while Jay Oliver’s musical career took him to jazz where he played with Maynard Ferguson and Chick Corea among others. Oliver and Gannaway kept in touch, and their shared interest in world music led to their debut album together as AO Music in 2000 called Grow Wild. It was not until nine years later in 2009 when they followed it up with Twirl after the two did some extensive traveling and hooked up with musicians around the world. They ended up being contracted for creating some of the music for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Along the way, they began collaborating with South African vocalist Miriam Stockley, whom they enlisted to perform on some of their Olympic music. Also Mumbai-based Bollywood film composer and multi-instrumentalist Sandeep Chowta has helped provide some South Asian influence to their music.

We featured their last album, called Kutumba on this review series in 2021, and now AO Music are out with Otherness, a kind of celebration of different cultures and diversity. In addition to their invented languages for their lyrics, this time, they draw on some actual languages such as Zulu from South Africa, Welsh, and Tibetan. And there are some lyrics in English, though they might better have stuck their their contrived languages. They also bring in a children’s choir, but most of the chorus of vocals are performed by Miriam Stockley. Oliver and Gannaway have a gift for creating music that is at once melodic and exotic, with a wide variety of instrumental textures, much of it synthesized, but there is also a mixture of traditional instruments like an Irish Bouzouki, with Indian percussion. A lot of the album is in a kind of African influenced 6/8 meter.

Opening is a piece called Unn Goh Rach, presumably in their invented language. The track epitomizes AO Music’s blend of an infectious melodic quality with the exotic sonic and instrumental textures. <<>>

One of the highlights of the album is a track called Nata Ire Vox. Ms. Stockley’s multiply-overdubbed chorus of vocals is impressive. It’s given a sort of bittersweet mood with the Indian-influenced violin. <<>>

Hero’s Masquerade has actual lyrics, partly in Hawaiian Polynesian, and partly in English. The latter is something that might have been penned by a hippie tripping out back in the day with references to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwock.” <<>>

Another track with lyrics partly in English is called Ukweli. Making a guest appearance is the Welsh children’s choir. The combination of the sonic textures on this track is especially nice. <<>>

The title piece Otherness brings in a vocalist named Varijashree, providing an interesting Indian quality. <<>>

With a more atmospheric ambiance is Om Mani Peme Hum based on a Tibetan chant, with a Chinese vocal duo making an appearance. <<>>

AO Music continues their cross-cultural romp with a piece called Yelele, featuring an Irish pennywhistle playing Indian-influenced lines. <<>>

The album ends with Calon Lan which is credited as being a traditional Welsh folk song sung by the Welsh children’s choir, interspersed with stanzas in Zulu. It’s another highlight of the album. <<>>

AO Music, the ongoing project by Richard Gannaway and Jay Oliver, is the epitome of cross-cultural music, with influences from all over the place, including directly from the imaginations of the founders, with more instances of their invented languages. But this album also has its share of actual lyrics in different tongues. But despite the more definite lyrical presence, the group’s main attraction is their great ability to create sonic textures that are at once pleasing and exotic, in an enveloping way. When they do English lyrics, it’s not so great, from a literary standpoint, but again the it’s the inviting blanket of sound that make’s AO’s Music’s recording such a treat.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A,” with good clarity and an impressive use of ambiance and atmospheric effects. I would have liked a better dynamic range, with most of the music at more or less the same volume.

New Age and world music can occasionally come together. AO Music does that about as well as anyone. Their new album Otherness can either be listened to as uplifting background music, or studied for all its interesting and creative facets.

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