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World Fusion Album Review: "Portrait of Souls" by Vellúa

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Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!

Album art for  "Portrait of Souls," by Vellúa

Album art for "Portrait of Souls," by Vellúa

Portrait of Souls is an album created by brothers Joe and Haval Haco (along with a variety of collaborators). It weaves a musical tapestry that melds elements of music from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. On the album, superb vocalists sing in a variety of languages, including “Vellúan,” which is a language created by the brothers.

"Portrait of Souls" Album Review

What works so well for me on Portrait Of Souls is the ways in which all of these disparate elements become integrated into a cohesive whole. Although the whole “world fusion” movement that was popular in the ‘90s is long gone, Portrait of Souls revives the spirit of melding interesting global musical sounds together while bypassing the the elements of it that were tasteless and clichéd.

Part of the strength of this album comes from the way in which the wide variety of different instruments that the brothers deploy meld together. You’ll hear oud and bouzouki, a whole array of percussion instruments from all the corners of the world along electric guitar and some synth sounds.

There was a danger of ending up with a bland mixture of generic “world music” sounds but the instruments are well-balanced. I could hear echoes of Iran, the Balkans and Africa along with ancient Middle Eastern modal scales in the sounds along with a large helping of jazz flavour provided by the sax and the electric guitar.

Another strong element of Portrait of Souls are the vocal performances from
Tatiana Shishkova who sang five songs on the album and Maria Stanichenko who sang Yana. I was struck by how powerful the performances are and how the singing became another expressive instrument. The visceral expression poured into the words needs no translation at all.

The electronic music aspect of Portrait of Souls is well-balanced. The elements of synth sounds and other electronics are integrated nicely. The Haco brothers haven’t over-relied on the electronics to disguise anything and their touch is subtle, adding just enough of the electronic sounds to create an effect, but not so much that they overwhelmed the acoustic instruments or those well-done vocals. That balance was also helped by the sound engineering work done by Holeg Spies on the album.

It was hard for me to pick tracks on this album because so many of them drew me in, but I finally managed to pick those that I felt were the strongest and here is my breakdown of those tracks and my reasoning for choosing them.

“vero” starts off with soft electronic drift before a slowly shifting electric guitar melody floats into the track. The bouzouki on this track has a distinctive, deeply rich sound as it plays a Middle Eastern influenced melody. The bouzouki is joined by the deep sonority of a cello and then string sounds soar in. The bouzouki has a lovely traditional folk music flavour and a sax solo hits with a smooth and easy flow. I felt carried along on a tide of sound with this track.

The throb of an ancient frame drum opens “doria” along with a delicate electric guitar, playing an intricate melody. This is a gentle and drifting track as the wandering and spacious guitar weaves through the music. I enjoyed the mandolin playing on this track and the guitar solo had a Latin flavour to it that I also enjoyed. For me, though, it was the lyrics to this song that really stood out.

There is a powerful sense of the tragic about the words to “doria.” From the very start, I was hit by the line, “When I get the strength to look up, it’s only blackness of the sky/And it’s raining through my skin, taking me back to all I’ve seen.”

The pain of the words comes through strongly in the line, “Falling in you, I’m screaming for the lost memories, still falling on my knees, for someone to see me.” This is a song that really hit me in the gut.

In “saver” there’s the soft flow of electronic sounds that move underneath strong flamenco style vocals that express fierce power. As the steady throb of percussion pulses in the background, it’s joined by guitar and the ancient sound of the oud, a fretless Middle Eastern lute, cries out behind the words. As flamenco may have North African roots, this sound combination works well. I also liked how clean the guitar solo in the track sounds, but it is that ancient oud that most drew me in.

“sesenio” opens with the incredible voice of the singer cuts into the track. Her voice raises the hair on the back of my neck with the power and depth expressed in it. We get a thunder of percussion and an energetic flicker of electronic sound but this track was all about the singer’s unique and strong voice for me.

There is a moving electric guitar line and that oscillating synth echoes out into the track. There’s also the emotive depth of a Chnese erhu violin, always an instrument that I feel has a yearning feeling to its sound. I was also a fan of the bluesy feeling of the electric guitar that adds to the emotional intensity of the music.

Delicate piano notes flow into the open spaces of “yana” on a blanket of electronic sound. This is a song in Vellúan, the language that the Haco brothers created for the album. The vocals are expressive as the delicate piano sparkles in the background. The background is smooth and gentle underneath the soaring voices as the piano dances behind them. This is a song full of melancholy, added to by the rather mournful sound of the saz, a Turkish stringed instrument. I enjoyed the feelings that were imparted to me on this track.

“navin” opens with gentle chimes that are soon joined by a solid electronic percussion groove along with a mellow electric guitar playing a slow, gentle melody. Russian vocals start soaring through the track over that easy, steady groove and swirling of electric guitar. The piano melody complements the soaring sound of the singer on this track. I also felt a certain sense of ancient depth about the vocals and I enjoyed the jazzy guitar solo toward the end of the track.

Portrait of Souls is a deep, complex tapestry of musical influences and ideas. The way in which the ancient instruments combine with the strong and beautifully executed vocals and the electronic elements produces a rich sound with deep emotion and moments of joy and sadness flashing through it. I have to say that, for me, this album has a lot of re-listening potential.