Only a few seconds of “On the Brink,” the brief introductory track on Yugen’s third AltrOck label release, Iridule, are needed to realize that this album will likely make the band’s preceding outing, Uova Fatali: Yugen Plays Leddi, seem like accompaniment to a leisurely afternoon in an Italian outdoor café. Uova Fatali’s Euro-folk aspects, organic instrumentation, and comparatively “live” feel leavened Yugen’s thornier avant-prog elements heard on the group’s nonetheless impressive debut, Labirinto d’Acqua. Some might see Iridule as Labirinto d’Acqua redux, but that would oversimplify, because the album manages the difficult task of moving backwards and forward simultaneously. “On the Brink” announces that something truly uncompromising is in store, with dissonant high-pitched long tones of indeterminate origin drawn out across a deep and ponderous metal-ish backing, which ends so abruptly that Iridule is instantly revealed as a creature of the studio; and in fact, the liners indicate that the recording took six months to complete, from January to June 2010 “somewhere in Northern Italy.” The next track, “The Scuttle of the Past Out of the Cupboards” (with Guy Segers on bass), has enough changeups crammed into its six and a half minutes -- fusion guitar lines, Zappa-ish tuned percussion, brief sax-driven jazzy snippets, atmospheric ambient interludes, proggy Mellotron -- that one could easily imagine an entire six months of studio time devoted to getting this single track just right. Imagine Zappa or early Henry Cow married to aspects of John Zorn’s ‘80s jump-cut aesthetic -- it’s a pastiche but flabbergasting all the same. And while some later tracks float calmly (recalling the ambient-leaning side project Kurai) and others (e.g., “Overmurmer”) display actual -- although fractured -- grooves, the complex, ever-changing arrangements and widely varied instrumentation are guaranteed to keep your head spinning.
Although decidedly Eurocentric, AltrOck has branched out to release music from as far away as California (i.e., miRthkon), and this transoceanic stretch continues with Iridule’s inclusion of several members of U.S. avant-proggers Thinking Plague: among the 19 musicians heard on the album (including, of course, composer/multi-instrumentalist Francesco Zago and many of Yugen’s other Italian bandmembers) are Coloradans Mike Johnson (guitar) and Dave Willey (bass), California-born and now Swiss resident Dave Kerman (drums), and Oregonian Elaine diFalco, whose vocals are scattered among several of the disc’s shorter and literary-minded tracks. DiFalco’s appealing voice can humanize any musical setting, and she is a perfect contributor to the title track with its ambient chord washes and dreamlike float. This atmospheric number -- with text from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov -- could accompany neon-lit urban imagery (as in a Mark Isham soundtrack) nearly as easily as it paints Nabokov’s Colorado valley rainbow (the “iridule”) in sound. DiFalco is somehow both ethereal and grounded, an effective counterbalance to the album’s predominant crazed complexity, although she is truly in the thick of things on the stop-start “Serial(ist) Killer,” with clipped phrasing inserted amidst the short bursts from every imaginable musical instrument. Nodding to the more accessible side of instrumental prog, Labirinto d’Acqua included a beautiful track entitled "Quando la Morte Mi Colse Nel Sonno," and its corollary here is “Cloudscape,” which closes the album by balancing epic grandeur with subtlety, building into crescendos but often drawing back unexpectedly, avoiding both predictability and pretension. Yes, Iridule may recall Labirinto d’Acqua more than Uova Fatali, but its refinement of the debut’s template and its catch-your-breath relaxed interludes make it a step forward, and the most impressive Yugen album yet.