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.

MOTHER AFRICA:

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.

BONUS MATERIAL:

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.