And here may well be demons. This album does something utterly unique by combining the influence of several comparatively obscure traditional musics (all of insular origin) in an avant-garde, microtonal setting. Far from a mere thought experiment, the music focuses on the spiritual element of these traditions, especially the mystery and mysticism of the sea. These folk musics’ quirks are amplified as they are combined, and the resulting soundscapes are both disorienting and mesmerizing. Often the instrumentation is the only thing to hang onto. These are folk tunes of an alternate universe, one that has adopted Western instruments in quite unconventional ways.
The music that informs this album most directly comes from the Adriatic coast and islands of Croatia. Muntz plays the primorski meh (or Istrian mih), a bagpipe from this region, on much of the album including the entire first and last tracks. He has described this instrument as sounding avant-garde, at least to Western ears, even in its traditional setting; his multiphonics here are truly alien, sounding electronic while being purely acoustic. Muntz has showcased the bagpipe on previous recordings, most notably the terrifying ghostly.ridiculous from 2021. It plays an important role in The Vex Collection as well, the monumental 2022 album he co-created with composer/percussionist Vicente Hansen which features a bizarre panoply of reed instruments both traditional and invented. Phantom Islands, on the Los Angeles-based Orenda label, feels more like a jazz recording than these, but its massed reed textures identify it as cut from the same cloth. Muntz is joined in the reed section by Pablo O’Connell on oboe, Yuma Uesaka on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Xavier Del Castillo on tenor sax. Guitarist Alec Goldfarb and drummer Michael Larocca complete the ensemble. All are extremely versatile players and improvisers who collectively create a definitive vision of Muntz’ music while still letting their individual voices be heard.
“Džig No. 1” is the shortest and fastest of the five pieces. The microtonal language of the primorski meh is expanded to the full ensemble, while the rhythm and melodic shapes recall Irish or Scottish jigs - another island music. It’s a whirling, swirling, skirling, alien folk dance full of wild solos and fills; O’Connell’s multiphonics near the end are especially unhinged. “Three Mirages, Small Town Blues” is a sort of suite which travels dream-like through a surreal collection of ensemble textures, from chorales to drones and even a hard-swinging groove in the middle. “May The Sea Be His Grave” is also a suite, split into two tracks but again with each containing many disparate textures and instrumentations. This piece is inspired by fijiri, the work songs of Bahraini pearl divers. The first half has plaintive, passionate solos from all the “horn” players (including Muntz), while the second contains an epic free-jazz breakdown that manages to stay microtonal throughout.
The final track, “Obokuri”, is a bagpipe/drums duo. It’s a high-energy piece, but the change in instrumentation brings a refreshing lightness. Muntz improvises around a melody from the Amami islands of southern Japan; this geographically unlikely instrument/song combination sounds like alternate-universe blues. Especially with this track, I envision Muntz on the shore of his own phantom island, robber-crabbishly collecting far-flung sounds that have washed in with the waves and using them for unexpected new purposes.
The cover art by C.M. Kösemen, with its surreal amphibians, is perfect for this album. Like Muntz, Kösemen is a world-builder, known for his unique imaginations of alternate histories and alien species. I can’t predict where Muntz is going next with this music, but a closer collaboration with Kösemen involving the latter’s writing would be mind-blowing. But then again, so is Phantom Islands already - and so, I’m sure, will be whatever is next.