On their website, cross-cultural, cross-country, cross-genre four-piece Ancient Agents specify their rider in their electronic press-kit. No junk food and local alcohol seem to be the order of the day. These fellows are clean-living, and have well-articulated facial hair to boot. Serious sorts of chaps, two from South Africa, one from Ireland and one from Sweden. The sound of this self-titled debut (to get away from superficial review, finally) is a bit more than the po-facedness of their website and rider demands. An album consisting of bookends of strong, upbeat African-centric sounds, with a sort of lounge-jazz-sleaze centre.
With two of the members on drums and percussion (Frederik Gille and Ronan Skillen), you can predict that this is a very groove-driven record. Between them, their bio lists rhythmic inspiration from a Lonely Planet section worth of regions. There is a collaborative approach, with Gille taking the harder-hitting frame drums and spikey Cajon, and with Skillen filling out on tabla and a selection of percussion. The spine of the record comes from this partnership. The percussion is paced in over the first two tracks leisurely, until it takes centre stage on the eponymous third track Ancient Agents, starting naturalistic and ending in a didgeridoo festooned Starsky and Hutch style funk. The self-explanatory fifth track Frame Drum Solo puts a spotlight on the varied and eclectic rhythms on show.
Reza Khota on guitar and Schalk Joubert on bass add the texture to the dense bed of percussion. Again, the bell-curve starts at Afro-groove, the opening track has a wandering Latin-Caribbean slip (and is titled Clouseau’s Dream, and I was waiting for an aggressive Cato moment, but sadly it never came). Littering the opening track are some charming bass harmonics, signs of Joubert’s ability to slip between melody and groove. The odd switch to a darker, tremelo-soaked, bar-room exoticism starts at track four and ends on track seven. Edges of Marc Ribot, goofy wah-wah, B-movie sneak makes this the part that appeals to me. The central four tracks feel more like Mexican piano kook Esquivel, but perhaps a bit less tongue-in-cheek? Bohren Club De Gore? Too urban. It’s hard to pin down.
As a journey, I found Ancient Agents an inconsistent exercise, and in future would probably focus on my personal highlights than take the high and lows as a full whack. There is a sort of trench, slick with grooves, trimmed with pleasant, mysterious, relaxing and tense melodies and solos, with a lot of a character.