Album Review: University Challenged – Oh Temple! [Hive Mind Records; January 2021]

An ambient and psych music to be watched! The self-made films that go along with the music create an eccentric and almost political discourse. Influenced by a melange of musical genres and styles, from kosmische musik, electronic and experimentation to indie, pastoral guitar soli, and krautrock, University Challenged have walked away from the pandemic and moved through umpteen lockdowns. This is a trefoil of collaborative musicians who has knocked together a mesmerising eight-track and double album: Oh Temple!. Ajay Saggar, Oli Heffernan, and Kohhei Matsuda are a threesome that had already planned to record an album since their first shows in the Netherlands in 2019.

University Challenged render a tribute to their master influential underground: Ajay Saggar, (Bhajan Bhoy, King Champion Sounds, Deutsche Ashram), Oli Heffernan (Ivan The Tolerable, King Champion Sounds, Year of Birds), and Kohhei Matsuda (Bo Ningen) but also some others such as: Amon Düül, Popol Vuh, John Martyn, Ash Ra Tempel, Aerial M, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Haruomi Hosoni, and The Incredible String Band, Robbie Basho, and John Fahey. Their first shows were live improvisations in Holland in 2019, but also the first time that Ajay and Oli played along with Kohhei. As Ajay said: “it sounded great almost instantly”.

Their stature was achieved by presenting musical shows with short self-made films (all of them can be seen on YouTube). After this success, they began studio recordings. As the short films are not part of the album, each of the tracks represent a way to preserve the inner self and impact of music. In order to achieve this, they use live instruments, synths, and samples. Ajay plays guitar, bass, piano, electronica, and was in charge of the field recordings, next to his nephew Suraj Saggar. Oli plays the bass and synths and was responsible for art and design. Kohhei plays the guitar.

As the pandemic was in progress, they had to record remotely which resulted in a greater experience. According to Ajay: “It gave each player more time to really listen to each other’s ideas and pushed us forwards individually to bring even more exciting things into the whole”. For Hive Mind, the record label, the release of Oh Temple! has represented a form of expression where “music helps us understand each other and to recognise our commonalities, in a way that is beyond or deeper than language”. The recording process started in March 2020. Ajay mixed and produced the recording at his Soundation Studio in Holland in summer.Recently, Oli mastered it at his home in Middlesbrough, England.

It is clear that the titles take their names from the short films’ subjects. They are: ‘Serenus’, ‘On the Banks of the River Swale’, ‘Reverse Swing’, ‘Choppers over Negril’, ‘How I Swam Across the Pond’, ‘Shibboleth’, ‘Black Smoke’, and ‘Inside Segovia’s Dream’. Although the music has its own energy, spiritual and psychedelic ambiance, the videos are an essential part. The diversity of film subjects, the colour effects and scenery are attractive, and include a particular narrative. Topics centre around tragedies of war, conflict victims, the old London, activism, animal behaviour, helicopters, a cricket game, or they are silent film-like.

When listening to this album, remember to watch the short-films for each of the tracks and to establish a relationship between the title and the music.