The Disco Recharge series has established itself as a reissue program with a serious sweet-tooth for Eurodisco. The Tantra Collection is one of their latest releases and is a landmark for the Eurodisco side of their work, tackling one of all-time great cult acts to emerge from that scene. Tantra was a studio project spearheaded by Italian disco auteur Celso Valli and this set captures all three albums issued under this title as well as a head-spinning array of alternate versions. There’s a lot of ground to cover so this review will immediately move on to a look at the first Tantra album…
HILLS OF KATMANDU:
The best way to describe Hills Of Katmandu is that it applies a progressive rock style to disco by utilizing suite-styled complexity and incorporating a variety of musical forms into its chosen genre of disco. It consists of two side-length suites that pack a dazzling array of melodic ideas and sudden twists into their arrangements. It also a certain psychedelic quality, thanks to the Eastern stylings that it favors from a melodic standpoint, and crystal-clear production values that enhance its beguiling effect.
The title track is built on a pulsing disco bassline but throws in every trick possible to add new musical dimensions over the relentless rhythm: Chic-style rhythm guitar, tribal congas, drones from the synths, backing vocals and snake-charmer keyboard lines. There are also song segments, one that incorporates lyrics that would have fit perfectly on any late-‘60s psych-rock single and a dreamy bridge that gives the suite its biggest stylistic right-turn.
The second side, “Wishbone,” doesn’t let up on the rush of musical ideas or the pounding rhythms. Over a jackhammer beat, the atmospheric instrumental details include a genuine sitar line, shimmering acoustic guitar textures, eerie washes of synthesizer, a surprise dub-percussion break and a mantra-style vocal line that gives an ethereal delivery to the psychedelic lyrics. Between the two sides, the album truly takes you on a journey that works whether it is used as dancefloor fodder or headphone listening at home.
The second Tantra outing changes up the style in a variety of ways. It favors shorter pieces, sometimes woven together in disco-medley form, and goes for a more traditional, song-centric take on disco. The first side includes a great, Voyage-esque medley of a tribal chant “Su-Ku-Leu” with the title track, a vocals-driven piece with a pogoing bassline and a clever finale where trippy percussion gives way to beautifully arranged vocal harmonies. Another highlight on this side is “Get Happy,” an elegant Chic-styled song with sleek strings and silky yet percussive group vocals.
The second side goes for more of an overt Eurodisco vibe, offering just two expansive songs. “Get Ready To Go” features more of the artfully-arranged group vocals that are a hallmark of this album, and includes a chiming, hypnotic synth hook that also provides fuel for a good instrumental break that also weaves in strings and horns. However, the big highlight of this side is the finale, “Top Shot.” It’s an edgy piece, with “Hot Stuff”-styled guitar riffs that dovetail with ghostly synth lines as the lyrics present an ominous view of life amongst the movers and shakers.
Overall, Mother Africa doesn’t cohere as well as Hills Of Katmandu but the craftsmanship and the variety of styles ensure it remains a compelling feat of disco showmanship.
TANTRA II — THE JOURNEY CONTINUES:
As the title suggests, the third Tantra album functions as a direct “sequel” to the debut album, returning to the one-epic-per-album side approach and the vaguely mystical/exotic style of Hills Of Katmandu. “Macumba Suite” occupies the first side: it begins and ends with song portions done in a synth-driven boogie style but has a strong, extended instrumental break with tribal percussion, some spooky keyboard lines and an unexpected guitar solo.
The second side, entitled “A Place Called Tarot,” is even better. It has a breezier, more relaxed style, interspersing its vocal segments with dreamy synth hooks and atmospheric harmony vocals that give it an almost New Romantic vibe. There are also some surprising, spiky guitar riffs that pop up every now and then for a bit of variation. Given its late-disco-period vintage (1982), Tantra II has more of an early ‘80s dance music vibe overall but its style and quirky arrangements make a nice bookend to Hills Of Katmandu.
As if three album’s worth of material in one set wasn’t generous enough, the Disco Recharge crew goes all out with the bonus material. Between its two discs, the set offers a dazzling array of remixes and edits for material from the first two albums (sadly, there is nothing for the third album but perhaps that might be remedied on a future installment of the Disco Discharge series).
As you might expect, there are a variety of versions for “Hills Of Katmandu” and “Wishbone.” You get 7-inch and 12-inch mixes for both, plus Spanish language versions of each song. The 7-inch versions do a good job of bringing out the “song” side of each piece, paring down the instrumental frills to create focused, verse-driven arrangements. The 12-inch versions perform a similar function, taming the epics and slimming them down to a 6-minutes-and-change length. The vocal melodies lend themselves nicely to the Spanish language remakes, particularly the dreamy second vocal melody on “Hills.”
It’s a testament to Valli’s skills as composer and arranger that these epics work in any of the mixes. Fans will be interested to note that the “disco mix” of “Hills Of Katmandu” is truly remixed, favoring the synthesizers over the rhythm section in its mix.
Both “Top Shot” and “Get Happy” were remixed for The Double Album, a release that combined selections from Hills Of Katmandu and Mother Africa. Those versions are included as extras here and they are true, top-to-bottom remixes that play with the levels of the original mix and also add extra percussion and synth touches. The “Top Shot” remix even includes a brand-new guitar intro for the song. Both work quite well, beefing up the beats and giving them a real dancefloor-ready attack.
However, the real treat presented in the extras is the rare Patrick Cowley remix of “Hills Of Katmandu.” Cowley was a synth-wiz and producer on the San Francisco dance music scene and was famous for doing remixes of disco songs that added new synth overdubs that made them fit his city’s disco scene (his redux of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” is a cult fave with disco devotees). That’s the treatment he gives to “Hills” and it works beautifully, adding an extra layer of subtle but effective hooks and intensifying its spacey atmosphere by thickening the electronic layers of the sound.
The package is completed by skillfully written liner notes from Disco Recharge scribe Alan Jones, who offers plenty of info on Valli’s career and a thoughtful appraisal of Tantra’s recordings. Simply put, this is another winner in a series full of them — and if you have any love for Eurodisco at all, you’ll want to add The Tantra Collection to your CD shelf.