Taking inspiration from the divine is a tough sell. Get it wrong and it can appear sacrilegious or insulting to the faithful; too devout and our largely secular society turns away. In the past the poet William Blake was famously beaten by his own mother when he claimed to have had angelic visions at the age of eight, but nowadays an artist is more likely to receive concerned enquiries as to their sanity. Yet creativity is so hard to pin down and define that maybe we should be less hasty in our judgments. Many artists describe inspiration as being channeled through them and have sought to explain its source using angels or muses as a metaphorwhether an attempt to make sense of the unknowable through naming, or a demonstration of faith it must be respected as a personal choice.
Which brings us to this, the second marvelous Spike Orchestra CD of 2015. Cerberus showcases their arrangements of John Zorn's Masada project, Book of Angels volume 26, intended by its composer ..." to produce a sort of radical Jewish music... to put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together." Like with the gospel fire of Aretha Franklin, it is not necessary to share the faith to appreciate the skill, passion and craft that have gone into this record. Sam Eastmond and Nikki Franklin have done an incredibly tight arrangement job here, almost every piece is a bewildering mosaic of melody and atmosphere, propelled by pacey rhythm and counter rhythms. While it adds a level of meaning to know that opener "Gehegial" is, apparently, in the Kabbalah an angel warden guarding the entrance to the 6th tier of the 7 celestial halls through which prayers ascend before reaching God, there is more than enough in the music to justify its independent existence. Take the way that the opening trumpet blast gives way to a bossa nova beat before settling into the sort of big band swing that a klezmer Ellington might have contrived or the way the brass accents against the rhythm, seeming to pan across the stereo image, that builds momentum. Add in the odd hint of Gershwin and this could easily soundtrack a chase sequence in some prime period Woody Allen film.
If that sounds hugely diverse then, you'd be right there are hints of many styles and genres from the rolling 'Black Saint' era Mingus rhythms to the nods to improvised rock in say the wah wah solo in "Hakha" or to Gil Evans in the opening sections of "Hananiel" or "Armasa." It's a vibrant cinematic music from the way that the brass plays against the stabbed rhythm of "Hakha" to suggest fast moving passing traffic, to the dirty rhythm guitar mixed perfectly on "Thronus." Franklin is less prominent vocally than on Ghetto but she is very much on point for the wonderfully spooked "Pahadron" that closes the collectionperhaps recalling the great Mary Margaret O'Hara's cameo on "November Spawned a Monster." Pahadron is regarded as the chief angel of terror in Jewish mysticism and the Orchestra do a fine job in evoking this on what is undoubtedly a highlight of a very strong album.
We don't need a manifestation of Gehegial or any other angelic host in the midst of our cramped and cluttered modern living spaces to enjoy the verve, energy and excitement of the Spike Orchestra's performance. This is a music to be surrender to, be swept along with and ultimately become immersed in, revelling in the many layers of detail that progressively reveal themselves. Cerberus has a remarkable breadth of styles, energetic tempos, rhythms and melodies that makes for an invigorating listen. The visual element to the music makes it seem inevitable that Eastmond and Franklin will one day be asked to soundtrack films, so we should treasure and enjoy their music while we can before Hollywood , or Pinewood, comes calling. Cerberus is a second triumph of 2015 and as such is highly recommended.