Ages ago, in what seems another lifetime, I spent too few (and too short) days on the Greek island of Santorini. Two friends and I were staying at a lodge that had rooms built into the side of the caldera that overlooked the volcano of the island. Our first evening there we sat to watch the sunset on a small terrace in the cliff side and the man who tended the bar put on a CD that totally mesmerized us – an enchanting mix of Balkan folk music, classical chorale and chamber music, spiced with a bit of pop and dance beats. It even had a sampling of Winston Churchill! Hearing it at the time was like being transported to a whole new world.
I made a point of asking him who it was and the next time I was in town I picked up a copy of Goran Bregovic’s Silence of the Balkans. Since then it’s been one of the most treasured CDs I own. Part of it was certainly the location and the company and that particular time of my life. But it was certainly also the music. Whenever I listen to it now I not only feel what I did then, but I also always find something new, even though I’ve heard it, literally, thousands of times. And I never expected to hear anything like that again in my lifetime.
So imagine my surprise when I first listened to Inside Outsider by longtime Guitar Noise community resident (and contributor) Arjen Schippers, who goes by the performance name of “Sleutelbos” (among others, I am sure). Once again, I found myself in the magical, musical equivalent of an epic story that I am certain I will never totally understand, but I’m thrilled to be part of the journey.
People seem to be happier when they have some sense of familiarity with the unfamiliar, something that can give a sense of it being like something else that they know they like and enjoy. To those, it might help to say something like Inside Outsider is a bit like a cross between Pink Floyd and Moby – but that comparison is just a starting place. Arjen’s musical pallet contains more than just influences. It has an identity and soul all its own.
Each song flows almost seamlessly into each other. The opening sequence of “Birth,” the first track, hints at classical music as well as metal and synthesized rock with a hint of jazz tossed in as the drums pick up. The synthesized sounds are trying to become voices but they’ve not quite gotten there yet. Likewise, the rhythm doesn’t solidify until the start of the second track, “Carcrash,” which definitely sounds like it could have been a missing track from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. His vocals are haunting, holding long notes while a horn plays underneath. The keyboards become even steadier and spookier by the time “Childhood Memories” starts. The main vocal is a bit freer, but too soon gives way to a female public-service voice discussing child abuse, which in turn gets lost amid a free vocal choir and the crying of children. And we enter “The Loneliest Kid Alive” in a maze of synthesized, jazzed-up rhythm and electronic piano and ambient noise.
And it all reaches the first big pay-off in “Hello.” The chorus of falsetto voices, accompanied by the chiming, clock-like rhythms placed me firmly back on Santorini where I watched some of the most beautiful sunsets. But even the sheer gorgeous sound contains bits of static. There are the slightest hints of grating and rasping noises, not quite hidden in the strumming of the acoustic guitar which will later become the even more rasping laughter in “The Architect.” And when the strange falsetto returns in “Please,” the initial percussion will remind of nothing as a tap dance played out while a kettle whistles softly in the background. It’s almost anticlimactic when the haunting vocal from earlier returns in “Love Song 69,” but when that voice combines with the harmony of the falsetto voice, everything becomes compelling again. “Love Song 69″ slow things down a bit and the strong single acoustic guitar, accompanied by stark and somber strings, is replaced by piano and much lusher orchestration of “The Great Unknown,” building everything back up again.
Rhythms become more hypnotic in “Jelly Jezus,” a synthesized mesh of dance-club beats and electronic psychedelia only to turn totally deceptive in “Diagnosis,” which sounds like it should also be a straight dance beat but it totally confounds anyone trying to find a steady place to tap his or her foot. The female narrator returns to discuss psychotic episodes and suicide in “Happy Haze,” which is perhaps a bit of unnecessary overkill (“unnecessary overkill” itself being incredibly redundant), but it does a great job of setting up the plain and falsetto vocals teeming up again in “Faceshifter,” so when they sing that “…the sky may fall tomorrow…” you can’t help thinking that may not be a bad thing. The strings turn lush again and reveal the beating heart and a new female narrator who proclaims the scripture of “Armageddon” and then turns back into the original female narrator in “A Happy Ending.”
All the discussion of psychosis and suicide then takes a back seat to the strident and moving string quartet, and eventual piano, of “Give Me Fiction.” The power of this one song is enough to totally eclipse all the preceding discussion. It’s impossible to listen to without feeling that being alive is totally worthwhile, if only to be caught up in the emotions of this compelling instrumental piece. “Give Me Fiction” then impels you onward to “You” whose complex piano parts perfectly fit the longing in the vocal. Both the piano and vocal simplify themselves in “Here and There” but gain intensity as the song spills into the final track, “It Might Have Been.”
Inside Outsider is one of those albums that one has to listen to in one, if not several sittings. It demands attention but rewards the listener with astonishing depth and layering. It’s not the sort of music that one is usually used to, but there is no limit to how it will amaze and amuse you with its curiosity and beauty. It will take you out of wherever you are and place you in a totally new and different world.
You can track down a copy of this straight from Arjen. His website is http://www.sleutelbos.com/