Austin’s Golden Dawn Arkestra are the type of heady musical collective that could only exist in a town filled with musicians. Fronted by local scene veteran Topaz aka Zapot Mgwai, this group consists ten or more musicians and dancers. This may explain why the band doesn’t tour outside of Austin much, as their live performances are known for being grandiose, mind-expanding productions. Luckily, the rest of the country now has a chance to experience the Golden Dawn Arkestra with their debut LP Stargazer. If the band’s name rings a bell, it’s something of a tribute to the experimental jazz and cosmic philosophy of the late Sun Ra, and this group proudly pulls influences both in style and sound from his own Arkestra.
Title track “Stargazer” starts off like the sun coming over a desert ridge, and one can picture a peyote-crazed cowboy wandering through a Technicolor desert. We are entranced with a slow, percussive build before dropping into a pulsating field of heavy, acid-soaked funk. Suddenly we’ve been teleported from the past to the future and the Arkestra sounds like the Star Wars cantina band if they were led by Fela Kuti. A similar vibe carries us into “Sama Chaka”, a song driven by lively organ, spicy rhythm guitar, and a dance music drumbeat. The aptly titled “Clouds” is catchy in its disco orgy bliss and the upbeat melody. The jolly chorus of “we walk on nothing but clouds, baby” conjures images of a sweaty, dance floor love-in.
“Spacewaves” continues in this vein with its repetitive “Let’s do the beat” chant and simple organ groove complimented by interstellar synthesizer sounds, bongos, and a full brass section. With its mysterious, otherworldly verse and xylophone playing, “Shabuki” functions as a sort of interlude before “Disko”, which is a straight up Afro-beat tune that oozes sex and makes you want to lock into symbiotic movement with your dance partner. On “Osaka” the band makes their full presence known as percussion, singers, brass players and other instrumental parts come together to create one massive sound that leaps across the stars and feels like something that would have even the most timid of concert-goers raising their hands in delight, and make sure to stick around for dirty saxophone interplay from Brad Houser and Joseph Woullard aka Ulug Becker and King Joffe Joffer.
The album closes as it begins with “All is Light”, a tune that finds the group going back to that psychedelic Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western sound. If you’re looking at the album as a whole like one big trip, “All is Light”, with its sitar guitar effects and twang – is the perfect comedown. Before you know it the song drifts off like a desert mirage, leaving you to question what you just experienced.
Stargazer is Golden Dawn Arkestra’s attempt to bottle some of the magic of their live performances. Obviously, the visual aspect of dancers, costumes and a trippy light show are lost, but it’s safe to say this band does an effective job of conveying those elements through this recording. And who knows, maybe they will take this one-of-a-kind act on the road this year!
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