Feels like it’s been a while in the making, but Buddha Sentenza‘s second album justifies the wait in a significant push forward from where 2013’s debut, South Western Lower Valley Rock (review here), found them. Still working through World in Sound, 2016’s Semaphora hits with the pastoral feel that’s been present in the German five-piece’s sound since their 2009 demo, Mode 0909 (review here), and if one is so inclined, one might still pick up shades of My Sleeping Karma in their sound, but there’s a progressive tinge to the winding guitar and keys in opener “Jet,” and the subsequent “Greek Ancestry” goes farther in fitting its arrangement to its title.
Ultimately, the playfully named Heidelberg-based lineup of guitarist/violinist B.B. Blacksheep, guitarist Major Mayhem, bassist Amnesio Bodega, keyboardist Pontifex Maximus and drummer Jesus Malverde end up as much in the sphere of progressive rock as that of heavy psych, and Semaphora has a refreshing cohesion of purpose and focus that distinguishes it from the hordes of instrumental jammers populating Europe’s heavy rock underground. The shift is visible even unto the photorealism of Semaphora‘s cover art, which finds a hand reaching across the shards of a shattered mirror backed by cloud and blue sky — reminiscent of some lost ’70s prog LP — where South Western Lower Valley Rock, while staking a claim on naming Buddha Sentenza‘s sound perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek manner, featured line drawings of fractals and other psychedelic imagery. I might be interested to know if the band, who split the six-track/48-minute Semaphora into two sides, each with an extended closer, still consider the title of their debut to be the style of music they play.
Could be that designation is nebulous enough to continue to fit, and if “south western lower valley rock” is whatever Buddha Sentenza make it, then all the better that Semaphora finds them so willfully exploring that freedom. As progressive as it gets, and as much as that colors the impression of everything that follows, the first thing one hears on “Jet” is a fuzzed-out guitar. It’s not long though before the organ, drums and bass have joined in and the arrangement thereof spun off into what feels like multiple directions, like beams of light splitting apart and coming back together in cycles. The second half, following some midsection chugging, drops to ambient spaciousness for a time, highlighting the keys and the overall textural feel, but the push resumes in the last minute and cuts off to let the strumming at the start of “Greek Ancestry” speak immediately to the name of the track.
More subdued than the opener on the whole, it demonstrates a patience that suits its bounce well but is hardly inactive, with lead guitar driving more weighted sections and switches back and forth around that initial strummed line, joined the second time around by violin, guitar and keys for a more lush take. By the time it’s done, “Greek Ancestry” has staked its claim in gorgeousness, but the 10-minute “Kréèn (Patagonian Lights),” which follows and closes out Semaphora‘s first half, is the highlight, with a meandering countrified fuzz starting off topped by sampled chanting that unfurls to summarize the patience and the spirit of the first two tracks while expanding the sonic foundation on the whole in a satisfying and immersive way. It never loses its sentimental feel in the guitar or organ line, and bookends with more sampled chanting at the end, making “Kréèn (Patagonian Lights)” almost an album unto itself.
Further sampling starts side B’s opener, “Laika,” but it’s direct speech, almost sounding like an advertisement or newscast, but the song itself begins soon and thrusts quickly into wah and a more active feel, particularly in the keys and perhaps in conversation with “Jet.” The symmetry of Semaphora‘s two sides is evidence of the consciousness at work on Buddha Sentenza‘s part, and that may or may not bleed into the tracks themselves, but it’s worth noting that nowhere on the album do they actually seem to repeat moves. “Laika,” for example, shifts into a chugging march with theremin behind it, farther-back lead guitar and synth swirl, and though it’s the shortest cut at 5:22, it still has time to cap with a quiet movement of piano before it transitions into the foreboding standalone chord that launches “Blood Rust,” the eight-minute penultimate piece that follows and seems to work most directly in stages.
The first builds from that initial guitar line, then it moves into synth-led atmospherics for its middle third, and from there, it emerges once again on a less threatening push toward an apex that, but for closer “The End is Coming, We’ll Take it from Here” behind it, could just as easily have been the payoff for the record as a whole. That closer, however, immediately marks itself out as the grand finale. Sampled lines from 1984 move into faster guitar that in turn shifts toward piano and guitar interplay and a rolling forward groove of riff, keys, synth and theremin — all hands on deck — before a sudden stop and chug announces the arrival of the next movement shortly before the four-minute mark. A wash of keyboard tops the roll, but there’s more intense drum and guitar chugging to be found as well as “The End is Coming, We’ll Take it from Here” plays out, and the feel is suitably chaotic as Buddha Sentenza pass the halfway point, break and return to launch Semaphora‘s final build from the ground up.
As noted, “Blood Rust” could have been the payoff for the album’s entirety, but there’s no question that the finish they give with “The End is Coming, We’ll Take it from Here” could hardly be placed anywhere else and still work as well, and though the song borders on overwhelming in its turns from one part to the next, that only underscores the progressive mentality of the band, since they never seem to be out of control or to lose track of the direction they’re headed. That may be the underlying message of Semaphora, all told, and if Buddha Sentenza have worked the last several years coming together to craft it, then their time was not misspent. As far as Semaphora ranges, it never fails to bring their audience along for the ride, and the breadth it unveils makes it all the more difficult to predict how they might progress from here, only adding to the satisfaction of the listening experience.