EVOLETAH – Calliope Dreaming

Evoletah’s 2020 release ‘Run With The Hunted’ wasn’t quite as well rounded as their previous offering, the absolutely stunning ‘We Ache For The Moon’, but it took the Australian band further into a world of introspection in a way that, if approached in the right mood, showed off some great atmospheres. With no help from a mixed up world, it took Matt Cahill and Ben Johns three years to craft a follow up, and much like its slow gestation period, 2023’s ‘Calliope Dreaming’ is in no rush to grab the audience’s attention. Although a slow burning listen, it continues an interesting journey transitioning further from a landscape of adult rock and pop into a world of downtempo grooves and jazz/lounge inspired sounds. Despite being even more laid back, it’s actually a better album than ‘Run With The Hunted’, which proves that Evoletah aren’t stuck in a rut, or cursed by a feeling of diminishing returns.

Despite taking a mellow approach, the band certainly aren’t thinking small here. The album’s opening number, ‘The Fool & The Candle’ stretches to almost seven minutes. In that time, Evoletah have very clear ideas of where the number should go, and unlike some, they never resort to padding out the extended playing time with unnecessary twists. From the outset, a live sounding drum sets the tone for a jazz inflected waltz, where a strident bass takes the lead. You won’t find the usual pop-rock guitars and keys joining that rhythm section – at least not at first. The bulk of the arrangement is fuelled by some brilliantly arranged string sounds where pizzicato melodies are occasionally joined by cinematic orchestral swells, whilst vocalist Matt throws out a thin, high toned vocal, accentuating the fragility and aching within a great arrangement. Eventually, a few piano chords poke through, calling back to previous Evoletah tunes, and this certainly gives this number a gentle beauty. Equally epic, ‘A Glass Against The Wall’ goes a little deeper into those jazz influences via a swing led drum part and deep piano riffs, which are designed for a very introspective listening experience. The natural production values of the recording really bring the best out of the piano, which continues to sound rather big, despite never being showy. The vocals flow between the jazz notes with a pop-ish ease, making it hard to pigeonhole the sound into any particular genre, but some listeners might hear traces of the more experimental ‘Laughing Stock’ era Talk Talk. Whatever your take, the combination of sparingly used piano, floating vocals and soulful elements creates a near perfect experience in which listeners with a more adventurous ear can lose themselves.

There are more accessible tunes here, too, of course, since Cahill has always recognised the need for a few more direct melodies. The first of these, the album’s title cut, takes the ethereal vocal moods from the previous track and applies them to a trip hop groove. The melding of floating singer songwriter vibes, bell like keys and deep beats is only a sidestep from the earlier material but a more direct approach gives more of an immediacy without losing too much atmosphere. The immediate rhythmic blast is very 90s, but at the same time still sounds great, and the marriage of slightly detached music and full hearted vocal is very interesting. It may only be fleeting, but it’s just about possible to get a feel for how Tim Buckley might have sounded, if he were born to a different generation and recorded his ‘Blue Afternoon’ material in the twenty first century. Elsewhere, the lovely ‘On Reflection’ makes a bigger feature of the piano, which played in tandem with a very bendy sounding upright bass, makes the Evoletah love of jazzy, lounge pop even clearer than before. An instrumental cut, it allows the listener an even greater opportunity to focus on the band’s musical nuts and bolts, and unexpectedly, their sophisticated, soundtrack worthy sound finds itself coming a little closer to the work of the underrated Dutch orchestral/ambient band Eskina. With a brief burst of 80s sax peeking through the rhythmic backdrop during the track’s closing moments, there’s a feeling that this track could’ve branched out, but as always with Evoletah, despite taking huge swathes of jazz to a more mainstream audience, their arrangements are as much about restraint than great musicianship.

A fair bit busier all round, the rather short ‘Volatile Cocktail’ places a bass groove above a drum part that shares a light Afrobeat influence, and the expected strings soon begin to sweep above the brilliant melody. Throwing in a couple of lead guitar notes and a shuffling acoustic rhythm, this almost danceable piece is the ultimate example of Evoletah’s ever expanding melting pot of sound. Although it doesn’t have the lasting beauty of, say, ‘A Glass Against The Wall’, repeated listens uncover something of great interest which Matt and Ben could easily expand upon in the future.

Stretching out again, the slow burning ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ makes a bigger feature of the piano – this time sounding more like an old upright in an empty hallway – when its rolling keys meet a slow bass rumble during a brooding intro. As the melody grows, the use of keyboard drones and slow-ish beats build a cinematic mood, and the assembled musicians settle into an easy groove. From here, very little changes for a time, beyond a few bigger string bursts, but it doesn’t need to; in terms of melody, it’s one of the album’s most accessible, and although the end result sounds like Eskina once again, that can be seen as a welcome thing, indeed. Somewhere around the middle of the number, the bass injects some brief funk, and an unexpected vocal adds a rather breathy performance. The vocals are more about hooks than anything; the repeated refrain of the title is a simple one, but manages to sound quite grand when placed above the slow rhythm and strings. It’s safe to say that if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the material, you’ll love this. Rounding out a fine album, ‘Been A Long Time’ reinstates the slow, mournful piano in a way that, again, hints at later period Talk Talk and a more organic Blue Nile, but a high, rather sad voice sets it apart. Taking the stripped down, minimal approach to its logical extreme, the track wavers between mournful singer songwriter sounds and a gentle lounge jazz, but still finds plenty of time to explore those familiar Evoletah traits: the warm bass, the strident piano, and a sense of emotionally detached coolness. As with some of the other tunes here, it takes a while to warm up, but once it does, there’s a really nice vibe in its laid back sound.

The best bits of ‘Calliope Dreaming’ sound like the jazzier moments of ‘We Ache For The Moon’, but at the same time, it’s a very different record. Its eight tracks seem very much designed for late night aural exploration, and with its occasional nods to 90s trip hop, it teases with a different kind of retro sound compared to most rock and pop bands at the time of release. Often more concerned with moods and feelings than actual hooks, it’s the kind of record that needs – and deserves – time to work its magic, but for those able to give it that time, any musical promise will be more than fulfilled.

July/August 2023