Understated Classics #6: Arbor Bona Arbor Mala by The Shamen
Ask anyone into pop music between 1991 and 1993 about The Shamen, and you’ll either receive a flood of euphoric good will about excellent tracks like Move Any Mountain, LSI, and Phorever People1; or they will rant at you about the evils of Ebeneezer Goode. The Shamen are either one of the pantheon of great acts from early 90’s dance and electronic music, or they are a shameless vaudeville novelty act.
The title of this post should imply where I stand on this. I think The Shamen were awesome, not awesomely cheesy but just awesome. They had a clear vision of what their music was supposed to be about, which in turn led to a definite blueprint for how it should sound. For radio, they allowed the record company to smooth the weirder edges of their songs by handing them over to remixers like The Beatmasters. In this they way their songs could be prepared for mass consumption without having to get too involved in it. Meanwhile, their albums featured a lot of deeper material that allowed them to indulge in more experimental ideas.
This outsourcing of their pop hits worked well for En-tact (1990 and re-released in 1991)2 and Boss Drum (1992), these albums yielded four and six Top 40 singles respectively. All six singles from the latter reached the top 20. The sixth was “Re: Evolution” - a spoken word monologue that predicted the end of the world and extolled the virtues of psychedelic drugs! For eight minutes! In exactly the same version as on the album!
With their new found success, the band expanded simultaneously outward and inward: outward onto the internet in pioneering fashion, giving away MP3 clips of songs and making available a MIDI version of one of their singles; and inward into the realms of the rainforest for a concept album about the jungle, the mind-altering experiences of shamanism, and the need for ecological balance in order to sustain the world.
The resulting album, Axis Mutatis (1995), was probably originally titled Axis Mundi but another band released an album with that name in 1994. There is a great seven minute instrumental called Axis Mundi on the second half of the album. Axis Mundi refers to a ‘tree of the world’ and the album is set up as a quest to find this tree. Think of it as Avatar re-done as techno-pop, though nowhere near as rubbish at that sounds. I get the feeling that the record company was initially offered a looser, more experimental version of Axis… (whatever kind of tree it was at that stage) and that they sent it back. Hence Axis Mutatis, ‘the changed tree’, eventually released after many delays.
Axis Mutatis is front loaded with Beatmasters versions of the two lead singles and another track MK2A (probably the best pop song ever written about the astronomical telescopes on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii). Almost every song with vocals has a production credit that implies that it has been remixed for radio. That is apart from Prince of Popacatepetl, which does indeed feature the word Popacatepetl in the chorus and is presumably why the record company had it left alone.
To be fair to the record company this partial remixing approach had worked rather well for En-tact and Boss Drum. En-tact is practically a Who’s who of fashionable remixers active at that time; while on Boss Drum the band were on a hot streak of songwriting form at the time, so the remixes weren’t as necessary3. Unfortunately, the tunes deserted them when it came to making Axis Mutatis or perhaps they felt self-conscious about the poppier side of things. It is probably this rather than evil record company machinations that make Axis Mutatis somewhat uneven4.
The Good, The Bad and The Tree
However, The Shamen actually released a better album than Axis Mutatis at exactly the same time. Called Arbor Bona Arbor Mala (“Good Tree, Bad Tree”), it was bundled with a limited number of copies of Axis Mutatis. In fact, the Friday before its release was my last day on a work experience placement at HMV in Portsmouth - I unpacked all the copies of Axis Mutatis that arrived and I can tell you that about a third of the copies had Arbor Bona Arbor Mala attached to it! Naturally, I was in first thing the following Monday to get my copy!5
Arbor Bona Arbor Mala is an ambient techno album that is almost entirely instrumental and is mixed into one continuous track. I was used to long form ambient music at that time, albeit stuff that varied quite quickly in the thematic sense (like albums by Mike Oldfield) or crammed with (often humorous) vocal samples that helped to tell the story (like albums by The Orb). Arbor Bona Arbor Mala was much more subtle and actually scared me a bit. It shifts between its moods slowly and surely, from a beautiful ambient opening to a rather dark middle to a pulsating ending. A younger me would often fall asleep at night during the dreamier parts of Sefirotic Axis or Entraterrestial, only to be woken up by the woozy gales of found sound in Beneath the Underworld or failing that, later on during the pounding beats of the similarly titled West of the Underworld.
Nowadays I find it easier to pick out the individual elements within the tracks and it makes for an amazing sound journey. It sounds great when played in surround sound. The credits in the inlay imply that some tracks were specifically programmed with stereospatial effects. There is certainly a satisfying sense of space within the music in 5.1, as though the different musical elements are separate entities moving within space.
Arbor Bona Arbor Mala is compelling not just because of the style of music but also the nature of the sounds themselves. The Shamen had some good kit and there are some really wonderfully physical sounds here that have been built with analogue synths rather than existing as digital shadows within a computer. It is this physicality of the sound that makes Arbor Bona Arbor Mala so enjoyable to listen to: when the music drifts you really feel the sounds drifting; when the music becomes propulsive you get knocked off your feet (or woken up in the case of my 15 year old self); when synth lines drift from left to right, you to turn to look at where they are going. Ambient music isn’t any good if it is inert, it needs to provide something for the listener to interact with - I’ve provided an example of excellent and engaging ambient music before.
That said, it is not all bloops and bleeps. Xochipili’s Return features a wonderful acoustic guitar line that plays out through a languid ambient background. You can almost imagine striding through the long grasses in the moonlight6. Guitars feature again on the following track Rio Negro but this time as twangs that accompany bird like whistles and insect chirps - at this point the mix begins to pick up the pace a little. It reminds me of the Comin’ Unsung version of Comin’ On from Boss Drum.
The album closes with three upbeat tunes: A Moment In Dub, Pizarro In Paradise and West of the Underworld. Pizarro In Paradise is as poppy as Arbor Bona Arbor Mala gets and draws from the same lineage as Conquistador on Axis Mutatis (it’s not just the names!). An interesting game is to think of Arbor Bona Arbor Mala as a remixed version of its parent album, though if that is the case it is a radical collection of remixes. There are few recognisable hooks from the Axis tracks - and a few from the band’s own remixes taken from the singles. One example is the Escacid remix of Destination Eschaton that underpins Be Ready for the Storm.
The final track, Out in the Styx, returns the listener to the outside world on shanty boat sailing along a river of silt. At least that’s how it has always sounded to me! The ambient sounds of earlier tracks return, but it’s much faster and harsher, like the end of a bad dream. Or indeed, the voyage back from a world beyond. Why on earth did I listen to this album in bed at night half a lifetime ago?!
Phorever People was so awesome that my Dad would play the cassette single over and over in the car. Either that or I made him. ↩
The two versions of En-Tact side-by-side is an interesting window into this process. ↩
Listen to the album versions of Space Time, Comin’ On, and Phorever People for proof. ↩
Of course there is demonstrable evidence for the “evil record company” theory. The Shamen’s next album Hempton Manor was entirely instrumental and the tracklist spelled out “FUCK BIRKET” as an acrostic. Derek Birket was the founder of One Little Indian, their record company at the time. ↩
I now own two copies of the Axis/Arbor double: one on CD and one on vinyl. ↩