The Vedda tribe leaders of Mahiyangana feast upon the sound of the drum. They push menacing spirits away, bless the land, and make the earth sacred through banishing anything that wishes to come between the tribe’s people and a bountiful harvest. It’s the percussion that keeps custom alive, searing with energy in a ritualistic act passed down over time, generation to generation. The Vedda belt, rally, and holler themselves into a trance propelled by the drummer’s rhythm science in a setting punctuated with color: deep greens of fern, myrtle, and moss; and those fire-red betel streaks they spit past their lips.
Protection lies at the heart of purpose, with the intent of invoking venerable spirits as a form of security. This is black/white magic, a loving fusion of rhythm and ritual that the Sri Lankan tribe uses to separate good from bad while they summon safeguarding deities. Physical reactions to repetitive beat structure diffuse the act from ceremony by encouraging a freestyle outlet for chant, which is taken on individually by participants propelled by both the sound’s force and the traditional practice at hand. Although this is a long-established and revered routine, it outlines the importance of music in provoking distinctive behavior.
The latest offering from Maxmillion Dunbar integrates similar instances of kinetic compulsion with moments of transcendental awareness and reflection. Although it’s clearly detached from the confides of any ancient animism, House of Woo comes across as a distinctly profound product of passion, wrapped in tribal rhythms and blissed-out synthetic elation. Andrew Field-Pickering, the man behind this sonic incarnation of devotional regimen, is a producer, music columnist, and DJ from Washington DC. He is also one half of the self-proclaimed tropical funk outfit Beautiful Swimmers and this, his second solo album, comprises the freshest set of house jams under the Dunbar moniker since 2010’s Cool Water.
House of Woo illustrates a departure from the hip-hop-scented flurry of the previous record, while this latest batch of tracks prove extraordinary in their cohesive merger of playful dance floor rhythms and transfixing key patterns — the former invoking a desire to move, the latter an invitation to ponder. Both responses allow for the terminal cliché “loosing yourself in the music” to be deployed with a reconciling twist. Percussive elements are permitted to dissolve into the distance on tracks like “The Figurine,” with its trickling static-laced 1980s pop temper. Conversely, on the intoxicating “Ice Room Graffiti,” the percussion weaves its way into the track’s delicious tones, and the beat circumvents a plane set to induce a combination of club antics and meditative zoning.
Such duality is depicted in the music video for “Loving The Drift,” which transmits slow-motion strobes and tripped-out visuals amid a brood of euphoric club-goers. Their giddy capers equate to the response of our Vedda, as his muscles convulse to the drum’s resonance that in his case is integral to ceremony, just as Pickering’s delectable loops encompass a breed of house that beckons a reaction; meditative, kinetic, or otherwise. However, the ambitions of the tribesman and the dance-head disband at any point where meaning is sought to be found in attributing sense of worth. Whereas the Vedda’s performance is intricately tied with religious sentiment and tradition, the fundamental value of Pickering’s production equates to the aesthetic ideal he aspires to.
Thankfully, that seems to collate the perfect formula, for the essence of tracks such as “Peeling An Orange In One Piece” lies in making spectacular headphone candy, which can be spun with just as much potency on an intercity commute as it can on the dance floor. So is there any point in looking for meaning within the new age woodwind sections that punctuate each piece like vivid foliage? Not really, because these tender numbers exist as a product of understanding how inventive house music works and demonstrating that knowledge through flawless and inventive execution. For Pickering, electronic music is as powerful as any supernatural promise, and on House of Woo, he demonstrates his dedication to the beat with a most persuasive degree of conviction.