Cretan Hopping: Xylouris White and Greek Music's Black Peaks
"Jim White is the greatest drummer in history. There. I said it."
-Benny Two-Shoes (Roadkill Radio host)
Only a man of such insanely pure talent -Jim White, not Benny Two-Shoes- a man with such a maniacal grip around the neck of jazz chops, can harmonise a band whose singer is nothing but a drug-addled warbler, whose bass player, although stompingly good, takes the unconventional to an entirely unpleasant level of disturbance, and whose guitarist is so nonchalant, that he seems like he has absolutely no idea what he's doing, even though he does it really, really well.
I can't think of any other punk band at least, where the drummer is the show. White doesn't just glue the shattered pieces together, he recreates a modern artistic renaissance and it's his many bands and collaborators that follow his many leads. One such band is his first; the seminal, late 21st century art, punk, jazz, scuzz noise type Melbourne band, Venom P. Stinger.
*Listen to what Sal's waffling on about here: The mind abrasion of Venom P. Stinger's paranoia charged, 'Walking About'.
Giorgos Xylouris is a Melbourne based, Greek born musician, whose traditional Cretan lute playing has become renowned world wide as perhaps one of the best.
As a young child living on the romantic island of Crete, he would often accompany his father Psarantonis on stage at village functions and even in the recording studio, where he very quickly developed the reputation as the island's foremost lute player.
In the mid 1990s, Xylouris formed his own ensemble, The Xylouris Ensemble, a talented mixture of Greek and Melbourne musicians that also includes three of his siblings, Adonis, Nick and Api.
*Watch and clap along to the brilliant Xylouris Ensemble in action at Melbourne's Thornbury Theatre.
As the Xylouris Ensemble's reputations as musicians and great entertainers grew, particularly that of frontman Giorgos, more and more invitations to play in theatres and live venues were received, and before long, a full calendar saw them mixing with some of Australia's most prominent musicians. One of those musicians was drummer Jim White, who had since moved on from his punkish Venom P. Stinger days, and into the esoteric, spiritually psychotic instrumental group, The Dirty Three, with his Venom P. bandmate, guitarist Mick Turner.
*Watch The Dirty Three's complete concert at Victoria's Castlemaine Music Festival.
In 2013, after a blossoming decade long friendship, Giorgos Xylouris and Jim White finally combined their respective talents in a collaboration that saw the unveiling of a Melbourne mini-supergroup, Xylouris White. The following year, 2014, the pair's debut album Goats was released to high critical acclaim that cemented a unlikely bond, and the guarantee of future albums to come. Now, in this horrible year that has been 2016, there is a light! A spark. A glimmer of hope into perhaps an otherwise bleak future. A second Xylouris White album has sprung forth just at the right time, and holy shit, it's a killer!
Black Peak picks up exactly where Goats left off; the frantic pick of Xylouris' lute kicks off the album's opener and title track, blazing a trail for our Jim to accompany with a somewhat rather conventional beat for a man who seems to have dedicated his career to avoiding having to play such. But it works. Black Peak, the track, is the perfect opener for such an album, setting a fast, frenetic pace, without ease in, and hooking the listener immediately. By the song's end, White has warmed himself up and is now laying down some utter ferociousness that lends the track an almost punk edge. But, thanks to Xylouris' folklorish Greek chanting and his wonderful and authentic lute finesse, the song remains Greek to its very core.
Track 2, the aptly titled 'Forging', does just what it promises. Continuing the stomping pace of Black Peak, it rampages through yet another Cretan influenced charger, with Jim White setting himself to wind up into one of his infamous, but visually statuesque, filler frenzies. But he doesn't. Let's not forget that according to our outspoken editor, he is the greatest drummer in history. And unlike some clans of the more unsubtle drummers throughout history, hi John Bonham, Jim knows exactly when to hold back. Here, on 'Forging', he does it with aplomb.
But it's track 3, the devastating 'Hey, Musicians', where the true, expert musicianship of the unlikely combination really shines through. The slow burner represents visually exactly what it lays down musically; desolation, agonising death, rising tides, and a campfire singalong gone horribly wrong. It's bleak, but at the same time, uplifting. This is where White's existential abstraction that he's known and in such demand for, comes to play. Again, he holds back, but without his timing, poise, and willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the song, things would fall apart in seconds. Playing second fiddle to the breathlessness of Xylouris' claustrophobic lute and wailing wall chant, Jim fills in the gaps where he sees fit, improvising a non-rhythmic succession of snare clatter and haunting cymbalism (I make up words now) that washes the listener's spirit with a matte black tin of Dulux.
With an intro sounding more like a Dirty Three song circa 1994, Black Peak's fourth track, the Leonard Cohenesque 'Erotokritos', continues the slow burn of 'Hey, Musicians', while removing even more oxygen from the fire. The song creeps along like sprawling ivy, with Xylouris ever so delicately brushing the strings of his lute underneath a deep, poetic Greek Leonard Cohen vocal. And Jim? Well, he's at his understated best, displaying his chops once more with another abstract performance reminiscent of why his main project The Dirty Three were so brilliant and original in the first place. The apocalyptic storm has settled now, and the gentle breeze of 'Erotokritos' blows in the eerie calm.
Black Peak only consists of 7 outstanding tracks, and is a rare treat in the currently saturated quantity over quality music world. Tracks 5 & 6, the off kilter 'Short Rhapsody' and the whimsical 'Pretty Kondilis' are both excellent masterpieces in their own rights, but it's the album closer 'The Feast' that really transports one back to ancient Crete, on the water's edge, blinded by the white of the hillside turrets and donkey blinkers, and drinking ouzo with one's best buddies, Dionysus and Apollo. Here, Xylouris sounds more like a Greek Tom Waits than Leonard Cohenysus, ruminating a deep gargle of Greek advice and quips, all while maintaining the ambience of Greek mythology. Lute and violin dominate this track, while Jim again is just happy to mingle in the background, nonchalantly frolicking in the licking shallows, while his new friends do drugs and make out on the beach. The track's, and album's, end signals a rare call of annoyance from Jim, a quatrain of cracking snare stating that Dionysus and Apollo aren't all they're cracked up to be, and he and Giorgos would like to go home. So they do.
'Black Peak' is truly one of those rare wonders in modern day music that only comes about once every few years. Part punk in attitude only, part jazz and ambient, and part folklorish, the album symbolises a gift to mankind for all its painstaking tolerances of Kanye and Taylor over the years. The gift is precious, fragile and delicate, and yearns to be held softly to one's heart and treated with the love and respect it so honestly deserves.
Handle it with pride.
*To purchase Xylouris White's latest masterpiece 'Black Peak', or for current tour dates, click here.