In the two-plus years since Los Natas guitarist/vocalist Sergio Chotsourian made his debut with Ararat, a lot has changed. Long story short, Ararat has become a band and Los Natas – for all intents and purposes – has stopped being one. While the self-titled Ararat debut (review here), which was released in the US by MeteorCity and in Chotsourian’s native Argentina on Oui Oui Records, was essentially a solo-project on which Sergio was joined by a few friends and his brother, pianist Santiago Chotsourian, and which sought to bridge the musical gaps between Middle Eastern and Latin American cultural and musical influences, Ararat II, or simply II, follows a much more rounded course. Both Chotsourian brothers return, with Sergio once more handling guitar, bass, vocals and piano while Santiago also contributes piano, and Alfredo Felitte of Banda de la Muerte has taken over on drums for material that’s more aligned to fuzzy groove than any specific cultural modus – though those elements certainly show up as well. II, however, is less outwardly experimental than was its foot-getting predecessor, with Chotsourian’s bass (he plays bass live, while Tito Fargo of Sumo handles slide guitar and noise) taking much of the fore instrumentally on heavier songs like the lumbering “Lobos de Guerra y Cazadores de Elefantes” or the psychedelically ranging low-end bliss of “Caballos.” It’s still pretty clear Sergio is driving these songs, and II, released by Elektrohasch on CD and LP, has its commitment to variety in common with the 2009 self-titled that came before it, but where that album drew a direct line to – and in fact shared a few tracks with – Los Natas’ excellent Nuevo Orden de la Libertad (review here), the second Ararat outing feels more bent on standing on its own than being allied to any of Chotsourian’s past work.
It’s a darker atmosphere overall than was the first album, doomier in more than just Chotsourian’s bass tone, but if the sophomore Ararat proves anything, it’s that the personality of the band is still developing. Each side of II centers itself around an extended, highly atmospheric and massively heavy single track. Side A seems bent on serving the will of “Caballos” (16:20) and Side B counters with “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” (15:48). Not that the material surrounding doesn’t have substance – the album opens with perhaps its most experimental moment in “El Carro”’s blend of acoustics, electrics and what sounds like flute – but those two songs are impossible to ignore as the focal points or landmarks around which the rest of the album’s total seven tracks are working. “Atenas” and the closing “Tres de Mayo” are piano-led pieces of significant length – 6:34 and 4:49, respectively – and atmosphere, and even the shortest cut, the acoustic CD-centerpiece “El Inmigrante,” is granted weight through Chotsourian’s echoing vocals and bluesy lead. The real anomaly of the bunch, then, is “Lobos de Guerra y Cazadores de Elefantes,” which, though far from being a misstep of any kind with its start-stop bass riff, huge-sounding tone, undeniable groove and Felitte’s locked in cymbal work, doesn’t fit the pattern. It’s somewhat faster than “Caballos” preceding, and more straightforward where “Caballos” patiently unfolds its build and makes sure its synth ambience matches the nod-worthy doomed lurching, but to pick one over the other is hard and, honestly, not worth the effort without a gun to the head. And if its inclusion on II makes the album that much more complex and harder to classify or dissect, well, that also makes it more fascinating to listen.
However, as side B of II plays out with Santiago’s rich piano melodies on “Atenas” and “Tres de Mayo,” it’s as Sergio’s reverbed voice stands atop a wall of low-end noise (8:45-9:30 has the album’s best bass – seriously), theremin and Felitte’s bass drum, which seems to have “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” grounded all on its own, that the record has its greatest triumph. There’s some stiff competition in the sheer sprawl of “Caballos,” but “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” is almost three songs in one, opening acoustic before launching on the incredible and already-noted build, and finally playing bass and acoustic guitar off each other while remnant psychedelic noise acts as backdrop for Haien Qiu’s subtle vocals. Her voice doesn’t show up again on II, but it’s not out of place either, since there’s so much ground that “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” has covered by its third movement that the song could pretty much make anything work. Sergio joins her on vocals as the track picks up towards its end, finally cutting out to the bass progression that’s served as foundation since taking over from Felitte’s drums at around 9:30. Though it’s likewise bass-centric and of similar length, the atmosphere of the earlier “Caballos” is less complicated, and has the advantage both of the avant lead-in of “El Carro” at the start of the record and the continued crush of “Lobos de Guerra y Cazadores de Elefantes” following. Still, where Sergio seemed to be on the top of a mountain that was “La Ira del Dragon (Uno),” with the approaching midsection of “Caballos,” it’s a quieter catharsis the song engages, organs more to the front before Felitte’s drums come back in and the build of the second half begins. Take your pick of either or, really, or better yet, go with both, since the two tracks play off each other just as much as they typify and act as the center for the rest of II.
With the increased guitar/piano interplay as compares to “Atenas,” the Chotsourian brothers recall some of the first album’s methods with the finish they give II on “Tres de Mayo.” Nonetheless, the production here is thicker and where that record was mostly instrumental, Ararat’s second finds Chotsourian with much to say, perhaps partially as a result of no longer having Los Natas to say it with for at least the time being – never say never as regards bands on hiatus; also, I’m not positive on the timing of when these songs were written and it could easily have been before Los Natas chose to take their break. In any case, it plays into the increased “band” feel of II as opposed to the debut, and as “Tres de Mayo” caps with a few bass notes to go along with Santiago’s devolving piano, the feeling one gets in listening is that Ararat are rushing to get the last word in because there’s so much more to say. How exactly Sergio and the rest of Ararat – whatever the incarnation of the band might be by the time they get there – will follow II, I don’t know, though they’ve apparently already begun writing and recording demo material for Ararat III, but given the heavy rock staples that the first two Los Natas (then just Natas) records became, it’s easy to think that Ararat might be in the process of crafting the moments that will come to define it as a band, whatever avenues they might look to pursue going forward and however much in common they might or might not have with the work they’re doing here. Already “La Ira del Dragon (Uno)” shows some mastery in blending the various sides of Ararat’s approach into a cohesive and natural-sounding whole. One can only wonder and hope for what a second part might bring. Recommended.Ararat, Argentina, Elektrohasch