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Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones: From Untruth (Northern Spy)

A review of the quartet's second album

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From Untruth by Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones
The cover of From Untruth by Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones

Amirtha Kidambi’s name received a bit of a boost last year when she put a voice to Mary Halvorson’s lyrics on Code Girl. It was just one aspect of an already productive career that includes studies of classical and Carnatic music, and performances with saxophonist Darius Jones. Elder Ones’ debut, Holy Science (2016), featured Kidambi using wordless vocals, while From Untruth is built on lyrics that often get drawn out and twisted for dramatic effect. Like the subject matter—including but not limited to oppression, colonialism, and the way truth is subverted—the album feels intense and unsettling. It’s also quite captivating.

Elder Ones’ instrumentation seems spare, but they have no trouble filling up the entire space within a given track. Matt Nelson unleashes some barbed soprano sax work in “Eat the Rich”; here and throughout the album, his horn often gets filtered through electronics that distort and reshape his sound even further. In a section of “Dance of the Subaltern,” he and Kidambi take turns echoing each other during a tense 7/8 ostinato. Bassist Nick Dunston’s bowing works as both an anchor and noisy addition to the music, while drummer Max Jaffe shifts between stark beats on the kit and “electronic sensory percussion,” which adds to the chaos during choice moments.

Along with her voice, Kidambi creates heavy drones on harmonium and uses an analog synthesizer for atmosphere that ranges from early Pink Floyd organ to video game static. Her tendency to repeat a particular lyric with variations in attack can get excessive, but lines like “Eat the rich, or die starving” drive home a particular point. This is vicious music for tense times.

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