Is it cultural appropriation or a creative bridge of cultures? Social commentators can have that debate, but I'm happy to sit back and enjoy Beats Antique's new album, Blind Threshold. The music is a synthesis of two divergent perspectives -- electronic music combines with culturally centered musical traditions. Most of the melodies sound Arabic, but there are other African tonalities, along with Gypsy and Indian grooves. The combination of those musical roots with house, trance and glitch elements create an interesting world fusion vibe. The end result is intriguing while remaining fairly accessible. The mix shouldn't seem so strange, though, given that electronic music has been embraced throughout the world, with many cultures creating their own hybrids.
Beats Antique is centered around three producers: Zoe Jakes, David Satori, and "Sidecar" Tommy Cappel. Their beginning is rooted in Jakes' belly dancing work, which explains the prevalence of Arabic and gypsy sounds on their albums. In performance, the band presents both dance and music.
Blind Threshold grabbed me from the very beginning. Egyptic sets out a fairly traditional sounding Arabic belly dancing groove. After a couple of minutes to set that mood, it mixes in electronic sounds, starting with a deeper bassline part. From that point, the two voices - traditional and modern - race one another through the track. First one pulls ahead, then the other. The course alternates between frenetic energy and trance-like breaks. The shifts of tempo and instrumentation are pleasantly disorienting.
The next track throws in a change-up. The foundation is African, calling Malian guitarist Ali Farke Touré to mind. The jangly guitar work provides a counterpoint to the big beat groove. The heavy electronic bottom end gives this a Kashmir feel, but even with the modern electronic sound, this is closer to the source than Led Zeppelin. Spiderbite also works the African groove, but runs it through a thick, glitch-driven filter. The organic guitar sound fluidly weaves through all of the electronic throb, at times taking on a David Gilmour sound. These two songs travel from similar starting points to very different destinations, based on a different balance between the elements.
Other tracks pull in diverse sounds from Gypsy music, klezmer, and Indian music, in addition to the Arabic sounds. The electronic side is often glitchy, with elements of trance and house.
There are a couple of stranger fits. The oddest is Merry Go Round. The sparse, off-kilter arrangement sounds influenced by the old track by outsider musician, Wild Man Fischer (Merry Go Round). It mashes up that source idea with a spoken word version of Bruce Springsteen's Blinded By The Light, to mixed effect.
Beats Antique has been accused of selling out for including a track featuring John Popper of Blues Traveler. Sure, it might seem like a blatant attempt to extend their audience appeal, but the track doesn't compromise their sound. There Ya Go is not so different from Spiderbite. It starts with a jazzy vibe, but sets up a similar blues tonal space, where the harmonica takes the role of the slide guitar. It's not as ethnically exotic, but the electronic elements are just as strong and interesting. Hopper's harp fits well with the sax and other jazz sounds in this funky groove.
Blind Threshold's greatest sin might be that it is so accessible. Hipsters will certainly latch onto the Popper collaboration as proof that Beats Antique are losing their edge. But scenesters are fickle fans anyway. The bottom line is that their music continues to be interesting and fun. Think of this album as pushing boundaries, like chai mixed with a shot of Kahlua.