Two worlds collide on this dazzling disc by Mischa Blanos. Clubbing and concert hall; classic and electronic. This exhilarating travelogue merges the two and showcases Blanos’ exceptional ability as a composer and musician. Gordon Rutherford talks about it for Louder Than War.
“You do not rejoice in the seven or seventy wonders of a city, but in the answer it gives to one of your questions. (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)
Are there other subjects more prone to reverse snobbery than music? It’s a long-held belief among many grizzled veterans on the stage that performers who don’t have a Les Paul or Strat hanging from their shoulder are somehow a fraud. Look at much of the recent old school reaction to the British. And God forbid if you’re a DJ or a producer, it doesn’t matter if they perform in front of thousands of people at clubs as famous as Fabric. They are seen as just kids with lucky laptops. Allow me to present the evidence for the defense. M’lud, I’m calling Mischa Blanos.
Blanos, sometimes alone, sometimes as part of the influential techno training, Amorf, is one of these producers. He is also a classically trained and highly skilled musician and composer. When the global pandemic struck in early 2020 and this avid traveler found himself stranded in his native Bucharest, he put his talents to use. Starting work when the curfew started at 9 p.m., he grafted all night, composed and created. The end product, City Jungle, is a body of work to be thankful for.
I started this piece with a quote from Italo Calvino’s surreal and magical novel, Invisible Cities. In essence, the book is about this great explorer, Marco Polo, and his time spent with the Chinese leader, Kublai Khan. Each chapter is a story told by Polo to Khan that describes a city he encountered on his travels. Or so it seems. Blanos is to City Jungle what Marco Polo was to Invisible Cities. He has traveled the globe, performed in major cities around the world and everyone has left their mark. Covid-19 may have anchored him, but he couldn’t thwart his imagination, which continued to wander far and wide, tapping into all of those memories and experiences. The architecture and infrastructure, the natural rhythms and pressures that exist in our vast metropolises, the ebb and flow of the day as it progresses. All of these things have become his muse. The sights, sounds and smells ran through him as he composed. From The Silicon Road, referencing a new kind of silk merchant, exchanging and sharing data instead of physical goods, to the Steppe, a desolate land of sublime void.
This is where part of the brilliance of City Jungle lies. Blanos managed to take all of these experiences and weave them together to create a splendid tapestry of ten segments, each of which is a small vignette of the city’s jungle; each bringing a slightly different vibe, a slightly different perspective of the city. Yet they never do. They sink. Just as all cities have different facets and characteristics in themselves while still maintaining a semblance of consistency, so does this collection of tracks on City Jungle.
Moreover, on this album, Blanos demonstrates an incredible ability to weld his electronic / techno self with the neoclassical pianist that exists within. Two worlds, one soundtrack. The net result is a series of songs, some of which are delicate and minimalist tracks, while others are decidedly at home at 3 a.m. in a club. But again, thinking about the heterogeneous makeup of cities, the disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together perfectly. At no point do you feel like Blanos is forcing all of this.
Let’s take a closer look at this wide range of sounds, starting at the neoclassical end of the spectrum. Here we have two tracks, Crystal and Steppe, the first built around sad chords by Nick Cave, the second a four minute slice of porcelain minimalism. On both tracks, Blanos chooses the notes with so much deliberation and consideration. The exceptional tip toe is shaped in a similar style, but with a twist. First, it has a slightly baffling time signature that offers a fascinating counterpoint to the primary melody. The start of the trail, like Blanos literally tiptoeing over the keys, is how I imagine a stroll through our deserted city streets must have been at the height of lockdown. It’s lonely and a little strange. As the track unfolds, it becomes freer and more playful, with Blanos playing faster and faster, like quicksilver. The circle comes full circle to end with a solo piano, concluding a remarkable piece of music.
More minimalism, this time with an electric piano, follows with Fluorescence. The notes echo like rain falling at 4 a.m. in this Radiohead-esque piece. Going up our spectrum, we arrive at the playful and jazzy On Cue. This track, the album closer, is more urgent and I imagine it’s impossible to see Blanos’ blurry fingers while he’s playing, such is the velocity at the points. On Cue provides a nice bookend for the album with the opening track, Silicon Road. It is a magnificent introduction to the album which has a dazzling freshness thanks to its structure around the Japanese hirajoshi scale. The crystal-clear notes resonate with such clarity, transforming into a totally memorable hook.
We are now about to move forward on this electro / dance end of our continuum. The Aerie opens with a thrilling metronomic loop nailed to frantic percussion, before unfolding in icy synth waves. Likewise, the album’s title track is introduced by a bubbling electronic loop at the top of a quivering beat. It’s a vibrant track bursting with energy. Like the aforementioned On Cue it also has a slightly jazzy feel thanks to that percussion and chords and as it progresses Blanos’ left hand propels this high speed train like a steam hammer while his right hand jumps delicately. An incredible technique.
That brings us to the two tracks that are most likely to have you dancing around the room with your arms in the air. Audition At 9 could begin as an elegant, neoclassical composition as Blanos delicately chooses his key. But then the synths come in and this is where his time as a DJ turns out to be invaluable. It maintains these sound waves, bubbling and swelling for an excessive period of time. Close your eyes and imagine the club. The DJ, Blanos, has you in the palm of his hand. Control the euphoria, ready to release it. Finally, he retreats from the abyss. Audition At 9 is a wonderful fusion of electronics and classical, so subtly presented that the way it switches between them is imperceptible. And that brings us to Innervision, a track built on percussive polyrhythmic sounds that play tricks with you. Blanos’ melancholy piano plays beneath the surface, the electronic keys swell and magnify before swallowing everything up. At its peak, there are some daring arpeggios. The hi-hat spins frantically, the bass drum beats. It’s a pretty brilliant composition.
With City Jungle, Mischa Blanos has created an album which, thanks to its incredible ability to merge influences, will have wide appeal. Fans of Nils Frahm and Neil Cowley are absolutely going to straddle this piano-centric album, given Blanos’ ability to fuse styles, and they can be confident in exploring this body of work with the confidence that it is crafted from the same high quality fabric. I’m sure Blanos, like many of us, felt the frustration of the lockdown. This traveler has been prevented from doing something close to his heart. But from adversity comes triumph. Maybe if it hadn’t been for Covid-19 there wouldn’t be a City Jungle, which would be an incredible shame.
There is only one last question. In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes a collection of magical, almost mythical, cities to his host, Kublai Khan. But everywhere he describes only one city: his house in Venice. And I wonder if City Jungle is not a travelogue at all, but actually ten songs about Bucharest. However, I suspect that the answer Mischa Blanos gives us is more complex than that.