Album Review: The Sorcerers – In Search of The Lost City of The Monkey God [ATA Records; January 2020]

Jazz music has a long and fruitful relationship with the world of cinematography. Since the advent of sound-on-film, enterprising directors have recruited from a pantheon of jazz virtuosos to provide fittingly atmospheric scores for iconic feature films. From the timeless works of Duke Ellington and Henri Mancini to John Coltrane and Miles Davis; as a rule of thumb, all great movies have an equally memorable soundtrack. Sadly, the reverse is not true and many film scores enjoy lasting appeal beyond the film reels they were made for. This, inarguably, will be the case for the ‘soundtrack for the motion picture’ In Search of The Lost City of The Monkey God. That’s not because of poor direction, uninspired casting or lacklustre plot-lines however; it’s simply because, despite the tagline on the album cover, the motion picture does not exist. 

The Sorcerers is an experimental project which evolved around early flirtations with Ethiopian jazz and library music of the 60’s and 70’s. On their second full-length work, reedman Pete Williams, percussionist Joost Hendrickx and guitarist Neil Innes have crafted a vivid soundtrack to an imagined adventure film, the inspiration for which stems from a National Geographic article about a vanished civilisation and mystery artefacts discovered deep in the uncharted Honduran jungle. A relentless and dizzying array of bass clarinet, flute, funk guitar and vibraphones set the scene for the fantastical expedition, which – often unnervingly and always compellingly – unfurls at a schizophrenic pace.

Picking up where they left off with their eponymous debut LP, the Leeds-based trio harnesses the wonderfully disquieting and kooky tonality of Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke. It’s a sad, if not puzzling, fact that Ethiopian jazz has been largely overlooked by the cinematic world. Veteran independent film director Jan Jarmusch utilised some of Astatke’s existing songs in his 2005 comedy-drama Broken Flowers but, despite the warm reviews of that release and the increased interest brought on by the Ethiopiques compilation series, the genre has not yet spawned any major film soundtracks. With this release, The Sorcerers demonstrates the brooding, image-conjuring qualities of the genre. ‘Treasured Sacrament’ and ‘Beneath the City of the Monkey God’ in particular make good use of the mixture of latin-infused percussion and moody, skulking bass clarinet which has become synonymous with the style.

Each of the twelve tracks of the song cycle chronicles a specific scene as the perilous tale unfolds and the mood becomes increasingly unsettled. Some pieces simultaneously border on the playful and the menacing; on ‘Shamanic Brew’, a swarming of bestial instruments snake in and out of the pulsating bass line, embodying the revolving cast of hostile inhabitants which seem to stalk our protagonists as they press deeper into the jungle. ‘Who Is The Hunter, Who Is the Prey?’ is a theme to a high-octane pursuit scene featuring frantic drums and nimble flute improvisations from collaborator Chip Wickham. The flautist joins the band again for curtain-call ‘End Credits’, a swaggy closing piece underpinned by organ and funk guitar which would meld seamlessly into a Quincy Jones soundtrack.

In Search of The Lost City of The Monkey God is engaging and cohesive; it has the tension-building muscle of an Elmer Bernstein score and, even with the lack of supplementary visuals, provides a riveting soundtrack to the 70’s exploitation film that never was.