Sometimes an album comes along that doesn’t politely request but shriekingly demands your attention. Our stalwart and noble Editor-in-Chief recently shouted out Papangu in the last metal column he wrote, citing specifically that it sounded like the kind of record I personally (as the resident prog guy) would have put him on to. Not days later, I received a message from Eden Kupermintz, one of the editors of our friends at Heavy Blog Is Heavy, telling me the same thing. More and more friends, from obscure prog Facebook groups to prog-driven websites and even to the broader experimental/heavy rock world beyond were shouting from the rooftops for me specifically to check this album out. The stars do not often align this ferociously in life so, a good night of the celestial order that I am, I obeyed the commands of the stellary.
Holy fucking shit.
Papangu play a modern and heavy breed of zeuhl, that most martial and metallic of traditional prog genres spearheaded by the, um, problematic fellows in Magma. Their approach borrows notes from contemporary greats such as Birds & Buildings (especially that killer debut from that group), the usual suspects of Larks through to Red era King Crimson, and even recent groups such as Universal Totem Orchestra and the superlative Japanese wing of the genre. If these names don’t mean anything to you, the gist is that this is jazz-rock filtered through a liquid brained science fiction prog metal framework, like peak-era Mastodon jamming with Mahavishnu Orchestra. I don’t speak enough Portuguese to make sense of the lyrical end, supposedly a concept record, but one of the great hallmarks of zeuhl is being written in languages you don’t understand, be they invented languages like Kobaian, the Kobaian-referent invented languages of groups like Koenjihyakkei and Bondage Fruit or vocals just mixed incredibly low to render them inaudible. Vocals in this kind of music, like extreme metal, are meant more as a timbral addition rather than a purely exegetic instrument; conveying an explicit and precise narrative is less important than the feeling unique to a human voice, especially in excitation.
But the music! It roils and rumbles like a volcano, the earth splitting open in thunder and apocalypse. Black metal strives often for a kind of world-ending darkness but winds up often sadly sounding like an air conditioner sputtering in another room; even sludge and noise sometimes lose themselves in the physicality of feedback and forget to guide its shapes with an artist’s hand. Papangu however stay driven and direction-oriented, transitioning from funky intense Latin grooves to body-chewing feats of martial prowess to darkly beautiful melodic sections, always building and building and building, like an orgasm preparing to break your fucking bones. This is prog that is not afraid of the body, feeling as rooted in sensuality and libido as the great post-Mars Volta wave; one can catch whiffs of that previous group, especially their more frenetic and impassioned moments, arising here. Structurally, the record skews away from the grandiloquence and structuralism endemic to a great deal of prog. Unlike previous prog records from this year like Transatlantic’s mystifying 90-minute single song released in three completely different arrangements, the runtimes here are tight, staying in a digestible sub-6-minute range until the final trio of tracks, with only the latter of those three cracking the 10 minute mark. Once more, this calls to mind peak-era Mastodon or perhaps current greats Boss Keloid (or older masters Gentle Giant), knowing well how to blow your motherfucking socks off in a handful of minutes.
The result is a record that feels like a freight train through your living room as much as any given song or even riff might. There is a consonance and singularity to the work; this is fury, this is passion, this is the tribal war drums beating a tattoo outside your home as sappers and engineers dismantle it brick by brick and soldiers slay your family. I love prog with all my heart, from the very hip to the very, very cheesy (here’s looking at you, most recent Big Big Train record), but my gut says if the genre was mostly known as the home of stuff like this, it never would have fallen out of favor in the first place. What a record. What a god damn record. Sometimes the world in one voice tells you to listen up and it’s right. What a wonderful thing.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.