Post-punk fans will know Jarboe as one half of seminal 80s act Swans, but aside from a 2003 collaboration with Neurosis, she’s a fairly unknown voice in the metal world. With MahaKali, she crosses over again, with Phil Anselmo and Attila Csihar along for the journey. Yet this is still really not metal, despite a droning, tribal build-up on some tracks that suggests sludge. Mostly, it’s an experimental, spiritual experience that traces a soul’s etheric transition from one state to the next. And given that it’s been released by avant-garde petri dish The End Records, it’s pretty weird.

First, Jarboe herself – the shrieking, shamanic mash-up of Jim Morrison and Diamanda Galas. She’s a vocal shapeshifter – by turns breathless and brassy, elastic and orgasmic. At first, on the title track, she presents herself as a wordless, keening melody. This isn’t a typical vocal track per se – she’s more like another instrument. It would work as part of the brew if the mix were more balanced, but her wailing sits so high above the steady drums and strummed chords that it becomes jarring and unpleasant.

Other vocal personas crop up on later tracks, from the sneering chanteuse on “House of Void,” (complete with violent vibrato), to the ludicrous, kittenish goddess of destruction on “Transmogrification.” This last example is especially confusing – is contrast her goal? “I will destroy what tries to damage me,” she purrs. Are her dulcet tones meant to evoke a seductress with the power to beguile and bewitch – or just tear you limb from limb? Either way, it comes off like Marilyn Monroe playacting as Shiva. Striking, yes – but kinda silly as well.

When Jarboe the Performer recedes into the music, I find MahaKali to be a much more transportive experience. Key example: “The Soul Continues.” Here, Attila starts with a guttural prayer chant that comes off like Tibetan throat singing. It’s soon joined by an ascending organ melody and Jarboe‘s shrieky, soaring falsetto. It’s all aggressively bizarre, yet it’s the first song on the album that feels genuine and not self-conscious. It’s almost rapturous in its own unique way.

Only two other songs hit these strange heights. On “Overthrown,” Anselmo conjures up a variety of croons – mournful, ragged, yowling and gravel-tongued – and weaves them all together into a striking harmonic mantra. Set atop simple acoustic strumming and slide guitar, and joined by Jarboe’s musical sigh, it comes off like a psychedelic Civil War dirge. “Mouth of Flames” follows in the same transcendent vein, with Jarboe‘s rich, lilting vocal above the solemn plucking of a Middle Eastern instrument. A swell of strings joins halfway through, billowing the song into something majestic and mournful.

Although I found MahaKali to be an interesting listening experience, I don’t think I’ll take this journey from start to finish very often. Despite the strong artistic achievement of several tracks, I found the others to be a mixed bag. Still, those shining few moments are compelling enough for me to recommend this to fans of experimental music or to anyone looking for something new and different.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
January 31st, 2009


  1. Commented by: Sandwiches

    Agreed this cd is just plain weird. I couldn’t make it through more than a couple of tracks

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