Aranis

Made in Belgium

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Over the course of five albums since Aranis' 2005 eponymous debut album, composer/bassist Joris Vanvinckenroye and company have continued to reinvent themselves, even as their avant-prog acoustic instrumental chamber music template has remained a solid foundation. With Vanvinckenroye's driving post-minimalist contrapuntal composing style and inherent melodicism, along with the ensemble's warm acoustic timbres, Aranis and Aranis II were most explicitly cut from the same cloth, but the band delivered a surprise with its third album, 2009's Songs from Mirage, which strongly emphasized the beautiful and ethereal contributions from three female guest vocalists. The following year's RoqueForte, their most avant rockish outing, included avant-prog drummer Dave Kerman in the lineup. With 2012's Made in Belgium, Aranis remain unpredictable, dropping the drums and featuring the core sextet of Vanvinckenroye, violinist Liesbeth Lambrecht, accordionist Marjolein Cools, flutist Jana Arns, acoustic guitarist Stijn Denys, and newcomer pianist Ward De Vleeschhouwer, and -- most significantly -- drawing their repertoire from a host of Belgian composers rather than performing Vanvinckenroye's pieces exclusively. For fans of minimalism and post-minimalism, Made in Belgium is a fine place to start investigating Aranis. They certainly prove to be skillful interpreters of Wim Mertens, whose two pieces here are rendered with stunning precision, as one would anticipate from expertly played music of the Glass and Reich school. Lengthy melodic lines spin out beautifully against a foundation of expansive, rippling arpeggiated chords, as Aranis explicitly draw their own stylistic connection to the composer, whose influence on the band was probably always present, if not this overt.

However, Aranis are not above some rockish pyrotechnics, as alien washes of sound -- perhaps produced by the array of pedals Vanvinckenroye employs in his looping solo bass project BASta! -- emerge beneath the band's hyper-energetic angular attack on the opening "Nonchalance," composed by cellist Jan Kuijken and originally featured (with similar sonic derangement) on 1993's Let's Take One More by Kuijken's band Louise Avenue, another clear Aranis antecedent. With its array of modern composers (including Vanvinckenroye on his own pulsing, variegated "L1," fitting seamlessly in with the other 11 pieces here) and the drummerless ensemble's arrangements serving as a unifying force, Made in Belgium is perhaps Aranis' most "classical"-sounding album thus far, including tinges of Albert Roussel's chamber music and Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango in addition to the minimalists. But to satisfy those who view the group as part of the Once Upon a Time in Belgium avant-prog lineage encompassing Univers Zero and Present, the album includes Daniel Denis' "Bulgarian Flying Spirit Dances 2," an album standout for its combination of vibrant folk dance energy and dark medieval-sounding harmonics, and Roger Trigaux's "Ersatz" from the 1985 Present album Le Poison Que Rend Fou. "Ersatz" was a fine, almost jazzy outlier in Present's head-pounding oeuvre, and here Aranis manage to imbue the composition with a relentless power and drive that arguably capture the true spirit of Present more effectively than the original, despite the entirely acoustic instrumentation here.

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