Zarthus – Robbie Basho (Vanguard, 1974)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to a creeping realisation that Robbie Basho is one of my favourite artists. It’s been a relatively slow process because the albums by this mysterious Baltimore-born acoustic guitarist and songwriter are still only patchily available. His 1978 album Visions of the Country (my gateway dose) is the most readily found on vinyl thanks to a reissue in 2013, while Bonn ist Supreme – a live recording from 1981 – and Bashovia, a compilation of key tracks from his 1960s albums, are the only ones you’ll find to stream.

Three more Basho albums are available only on CD from Ace Records, including his 1965 debut album, The Seal of the Blue Lotus, and two records he cut for Vanguard Records in the early 1970s: The Voice of an Eagle (which I’ve yet to get) and the record that’s dominated my listening in the early days of 2017: Zarthus.

Self-described as “an LP of Persian, Arabic, Western Themes, woven together into a single ‘Fabric D’Amour’ to cover the barren manekin [sic] of modern times”, it comprises six deeply spiritual songs – the last of which, at just short of 20 minutes, would have taken up a whole side of the original vinyl.

Like his contemporary John Fahey, Basho is known for bringing raga-inspired structures to his 6- and 12-string guitar playing, but Zarthus is the most explicitly eastern-sounding of all his recordings that I’ve heard so far, with Ramnad V Raghavan playing the mridangam – a south Indian drum – on all of the first five tracks.

Beautiful as all five of these undoubtedly are, however, it’s the epic closer, ‘Rhapsody in Druz’, that lifts this pearl of an album into the stratosphere. Basho abandons his guitar here in favour of piano, backing his wrenchingly emotional baritone incantations with rippling washes of ecstatic chords. Imagine a shamanistic Antony Hegarty bellowing prayers to the sky, elevated ever upwards by surges of Lubomyr Melnyk-like keyboard work and you’ll get a glimpse of the rarified musical realms where this climax to Zarthus takes us.

The only comment on the discogs page for this album suggests that “‘Rhapsody in Druz’ must be one of the all time high points in the history of recorded music”, while a comment on the song’s YouTube page says of Basho: “A pure genius…I’m speechless…he must have been from another universe!” Though they may sound hyperbolic, these remarks get at some of my own wonder at the power that Basho summons on this song – and just how far outside other singer-songwriter trends it seems to sit. This album and song are precisely nothing like Dylan, Neil Young or any of the more modern alt country artists who – in far more timid ways – have attempted to encapsulate something about the American landscape in their work. It’s nothing like Fahey really either.

Nor – despite all this talk of eastern instrumentation, side-long tracks and the threatening pomposity of its stated theme – is Zarthus anything like certain cosmically themed albums that emerged from the prog scene around the same time. It would be easy to say, instead, that Basho’s work exists inside a vacuum, except that his music overwhelmingly evokes the openness of mountains, rivers, forests and the vast firmament overhead.

There’s a bit just over six minutes into ‘Rhapsody in Druz’ that momentarily evokes some of mounting melodrama of Gorecki’s emotionally intense third symphony, and perhaps melodrama would be the word here too. By the time, 18 minutes in, Basho is wailing “Bonjour, mon dieu! Voici, mon coeur!” – turning to French in the song’s final moments for reasons that only he knew – you might almost laugh at the earnest, out-of-time, all-or-nothingness of it all, were it not that (to paraphrase Kris Needs’ indispensable liner notes) he’s bringing down the angels as he plays.

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