Bamboo’s second album The Dragon Flies Away is inspired by a mask: the Hannya mask, which is used in medieval Japanese Noh plays, traditionally reserved for the role of a female demon. In one such story, Dojoji, the demon gets rather obsessed with bells after her husband-to-be (or so she thought; the man used the age old excuse: “It was just a joke!”) hides under one to escape her rage. Unsuccessfully, as she transforms into a giant serpent and coils herself around the bell until it burns white-hot, boiling him inside. So when years later the temple finally acquires a new bell, she tricks the temple servants by performing a hypnotising dance before them, and then when they are completely distracted, strikes the bell with such force that it comes crashing down – trapping herself underneath it.
What’s special about the Hannya mask is its two-facedness. When looking straight ahead, the mask’s expression is full of rage and jealous obsession, but looking down, it reveals sorrow. These are also the themes of The Dragon Flies Away, revealed by song titles such as ‘I’ll Never See You Again’ and ‘Thinking of You’. The latter is easily the best track on the album, mesmerising from the first lingering electronic beats, like a slowed-down Depeche Mode hit. Rachel Horwood’s deep but soft voice sounds restrained; a mask expresses emotions, but it hides them too.
Also like a mask, the music is static. Rarely anything happens over the span of a song. Just like the way minimal music evokes change by means of repetition, Bamboo create movement with subtle alterations. This makes The Dragon Flies Away much more interesting than its predecessor, Prince Pansori Priestess. On that album, Bamboo blended beats and synths and processed vocals together into a blur much like Animal Collective’s folktronica or the lotus flowers of The King of Limbs. Now I don’t mind music being about the sound more than the song, choosing form over colour, but that form should be solid rather than muddy. It’s like painting: blending primary colours together can result in the most stunning shades of turquoise, but do it wrong and you get brown. Or, in the case of Prince Pansori Priestess, a sort of jungle green, and me not liking that colour is wholly subjective. Not all music criticism is.
Despite its directionlessness, Prince Pansori Priestess was refreshing, intriguing, and contained the redeeming stand-out single ‘Be Brothers’. But the songs on The Dragon Flies Away possess a more distinct identity; together they lift up the album as a unified whole. You could say Bamboo has become more individualistic. Opening track ‘Hannya’, with its lamenting vocals, captures that same ‘doomed bride’ feel that Bat for Lashes uses on her latest release. As such, it sets the tone for the original story Bamboo is telling, which is inspired by traditional Noh plays such as the one I told above. The next track ‘Always Running’ reminds me of the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ by the Talking Heads, the way the organ crawls under the song’s skin, like the fear you can feel in your heart even before you register it in your head. The aforementioned single ‘Thinking of You’ follows and with the short, ambient-like epiloque ‘I’ll Never See You Again’ the first Act ends.
The second half, Act II, is decidedly darker – more like an ancient exorcism than a mysterious dance or a failed romance – and accordingly the songs become brooding, formless, drowning. It bears a similarity to the Ninth Wave suite on the second half of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love; the first minute of Bamboo’s ‘The Brain in the Heart’ even resembled her ‘Under Ice’ musically. While these songs again have a lesser-defined shape, they remain scenical and coherent. This is merely the other side of the mask showing.
Relying on its title, closing track ‘The Dragon Flies Away’ has the album ending on a hopeful note nonetheless, because for some reason I am inclined to side with our Hannya mask-wearing female demon rather than the religious temple-building men. Dojoji ends with the vengeful serpent vanishing beneath the waves of a river, but The Dragon Flies Away follows a different story – and I prefer the way this version ends.
-- Caspar Jacobs, September 24, 2016