On their third full-length CD, the suite-like Songs from Mirage, Belgium’s Aranis prove that they can throw a sonic curve ball at their listeners while still remaining largely true to their overall sound. But what is the Aranis “sound,” anyway? The Antwerp-based ensemble finds itself somewhat locked in a rock box when listeners and writers attempt categorization, and yet this is a band with a decidedly “chamber music” approach: led by a double bassist and featuring two violins, flute, piano, guitar, piano, and accordion -- and no drums. If one were to define “rock” as having a rock-solid rhythmic pulse, then the pigeonholing is easy to understand; Aranis insistently drive forward as they layer their instruments in ostinatos and arpeggios with both drama and finesse, and even when their tempos slow down, their rhythms are usually explicit rather than merely implied. And yet Aranis composer/bassist/bandleader Joris Vanvinckenroye’s music probably owes as much to minimalism as to rock -- there are instances when a Philip Glass influence emerges, although minimalism’s mechanistic precision is camouflaged by the warmth of Aranis’ instrumentation (it takes a special talent to make an accordion sound cold) and a tinge of Euro-folk.
Rock, chamber music, contemporary composition, Euro-folk -- whatever it is, Aranis’ music sounds uniquely their own, and after Aranis and Aranis II, two rather similar-sounding albums, one might have expected that Songs from Mirage would present more of the same. But Vanvinckenroye has added something new here -- three female vocalists who sing in an ethereal, somewhat medieval-sounding choral style, with voices sometimes standing alone but more often united in harmony over the band’s interlocking riffs and forward surge. Aranis still sound like Aranis here, and thankfully so; and the singing of Els Van Laethem, Herlinde Ghekiere, and Anne Marie Honggokoesoemo is a nice touch, although Songs from Mirage is not satisfied with a mere touch of them. In fact, they sing on most tracks, so their presence becomes more like a full meal, or even a feast -- with the previously nearly all-instrumental Aranis moving slightly in the direction of accompanists rather than the main event. The casual listener might even think “new age” at times, thankfully with the sheen rubbed off and the bombast removed by Aranis’ intimacy and comparatively small scale (although they seem to be shooting for a Carmina Burana feel during “Lever In Plakjes” -- The Omen rearing its head rather than Koyaanisqatsi).
It would be a mistake to conclude that the singers are everywhere, however; tracks like “Chamber Rock” and “Airesym” -- the latter showcasing the violins with pizzicato accents and a brief wailing solo break -- have moments of dark and dramatic, nearly aggressive power in a completely instrumental realm. “Keria”’s concluding bursts of dissonance are overtaken by a brief interlude of cacophonic free improvisation, and “Ilah” is Aranis at their absolute best in four and a half minutes -- beginning and ending with hypnotic and understated minimalist-flavored repetitions and harmonics but filled in its early music-tinged midsection by stunning interplay in unison and counterpoint lines, particularly from the flute, guitar, and violins. And although the otherworldly beauty of the three singers might wear a little thin by the concluding “Finale,” one might note that Van Laethem, Ghekiere, and Honggokoesoemo are a better vocal fit with Aranis than Joris Vanvinckenroye’s brother Edwin, the histrionic guest singer on “Zilezi,” a lengthy track from the band’s debut CD. All things considered, then, Songs from Mirage is another fine release from Aranis, proving they can keep their identity intact while charting new and often beautiful directions.