The fourth long-player by the duo of Cretan lauto player/vocalist Giorgis Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White commences much like their previous outings: with a somber yet evocative ode in "Tree Song." Its story could have been delivered by the ancient Muses, and establishes the album's links to Greek folk music and myth. The pair chose the title because of a shared point of view regarding the mythical Sisyphus. To them, he is not merely the cursed king destined to roll a boulder up a hill as eternal punishment for his excesses, but a reminder that a single being can impact the world.
The remaining seven pieces here depart from the duo's previous output stylistically. They remain rooted in the Greek folk tradition but rely more on formal poetic expression. Xylouris White's sound, while completely inspired by the ancient, is inescapably part of the 21st century. The brief instrumental "Goat Hair Bow" is exactly that: Xylouris' lauto played with sparse, sometimes dissonant arco phrases underscored by White's sparse, rumbling tom-tom, a whispered, hand-played cymbal, and unidentified percussion. There is no rhythm per se, only adornments of space and tone. "Heart's Eyes" is indebted, at least peripherally, to the early blues, offered with mournful drones and supported by additional instruments such as cello, oud, and mandolin. The duo's canny, trademark interplay is evident on tracks such as "Telephone Song": they create a snaky, hypnotic framework where acoustic blues meet folk tradition and investigative improv. "Black Sea" commences as a shadowy processional. Xylouris sings "Fate banished me to the wooded woods…." White's drumming fills out the abstract margins, beckoning the lute player to meet him in the ether between phrases. Before long, Xylouris' playing becomes hyperkinetic, with quickly strummed, amplified chords aimed directly at White's incessant martial snares; only the former's singing voice retains its center even as an unruly cello rings like an angry siren from the background. "Wedding Song" is actually a dirge about a stranger whose journey is fraught with bad weather and loneliness; he has only his horse to talk to. (If that's not the blues, what is?) Closer "Ascension" is rife with White's taut yet polyrhythmic snare fills combined with Xylouris' assertive single-string solos. The somber songs on The Sisypheans are deceptively complex, as subtle tones, dynamics, and harmonies emerge gradually and vanish suddenly with startling regularity. The duo's improvisational intersections are fluid as they confront the crossroads of formal rhythm with unearthly drones and resonant overtones, creating a mysterious, evocative music from another time and place that just might be the future. In revisiting the traditional directly, and investing it with such a disciplined application of freedom, Xylouris White's The Sisypheans is their most compelling record to date.