Album of the Year 2013: Pagan Rites by Ixtahuele

It’s only the beginning of June but I can tell you there will be no better album released this year than the debut album of Sweden’s Ixtahuele, Pagan Rites. The band plays Martin Denny-style Exotica music and interestingly the album contains only original songs. Covers are a staple of the genre, so an album of only originals is rare. What’s even more unusual is that these originals are all excellent. The sound is crisp and the band eschews synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation that has crept into many “exotica” records over the past decade.

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What Ixtahuele have done is created a sound so similar to the old Martin Denny records that if you played this and said it was a “lost album” by Denny and his group you’d be hard pressed to argue. Not that what Ixtahuele is doing is merely copying the old master. Indeed, it’s refreshing to see a band play the style of music “straight” without trying to slipstream on the ambient or electronic or lounge or burlesque trends that are cousins to the classic “tiki exotica” that Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Robert Drasnin made famous in the 1950s.

As with all great Exotica records, there are a mix of styles represented on Pagan Rites. “Gardens of Mu” is a mellow mix of piano and vibes. “Lotus Eaters” features an “oriental” piano riff while “Orust Luau” features Latin rhythms. The opening track “Black Sand” features animal sounds that would fit in on any Denny album. And “Stone Gods of Bimini” includes chanting and a great percussion break. In other words, all the subgenres that made classic Exotica albums portals into fantastic places real or imagined.

Not everything’s perfect with Ixtahuele, starting with the name that’s fairly impossible to pronounce. And their black tie aethstetic, while a nice departure from the typical Hawaiian shirt motif still is incongruous with the music being played. Still, minor quibbles overall.

The reason this is album of the year is that amongst it’s genre, it’s quite easily the best album in at least five years. And honestly I can see myself putting this on the shelf next to classics by Denny, Lyman, Drasnin, Gene Rains, and Les Baxter and feeling like this belongs in the canon.

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