Before Vajrayana Buddhism was established as the primary religion of Tibet, there were the shamanistic practices and beliefs known as Bon. While modern academics tend to discourage the use of that term to describe the pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet – Bon also being the name of a distinct religion established roughly in the 12th Century – practitioners of Bon tend to have a different opinion. This is hardly the place for that discussion, and only tangentially related to this album as such.
Dark ambient stronghold Cyclic Law has tentacles reaching out to the most peculiar places, and if any label should have any sort of connection to the beliefs of Tibetan shamans, C.L. is certainly it. Granted, Phurpa are not from Tibet but from Russia, but they do practice the ritual techniques of the Bon Tibetan tradition, and they also record this activity. Gyer Ro is a double CD with four tracks in total, each constituting a lengthy chant or mantra, backed up by sparse but effective use of traditional Tibetan instruments. These include dunchen horns, nga drums, rolmo cymbals, gyaling oboes and short wandun horns. Not items you’ll find in the hands of your average garage band.
Phurpa are fairly established on the alternative music scene, which is probably why Cyclic Law is able to give the CD such a generous limitation – 500 copies in pretty A5 sleeves are available. That is not to say that this music isn’t attractive in and of itself as well, but it is certainly not the most accessible material. The chants are truly impressive – to anyone unfamiliar with Phurpa and Bon chanting, the easiest comparison would be Mongolian throat singing, except this is mainly more pulsing with many distinct interruptions. The myriad of ritualist instruments provide a suitably meditative background during the usually brief pauses in the singing, and quite often the instruments and the vocals are in action simultaneously, creating a deeply mystical atmosphere.
To anyone who has any type of relationship to traditional religion and/or “the East”, this is music that is easy to get into, but for others it may be more difficult. The mantras and rites of Phurpa are not as fundamentally alien and inaccessible as something like Indonesian Gamelan (also awesome), but nor is it easy listening. The sense of mystery and transcendence is really produced through minimalist means, and Phurpa do nothing to try to make this more enticing or cinematic to people who may want something more like a soundtrack or a regular dark ambient album. “Laughter of To-Nag-Ma” contains one hour and eighteen minutes of pure shamanistic mantra chanting, strict ritual instrumental work and only the bare minimum of effects (possibly natural reverb of some sort). “Hundred Syllable Mantra”, as well as the other two tracks, continue in a similar vein. This is not geared towards any type of “audience” – you’ll have to come to this music, or it will stay among the Tibetan (or Russian) mountain peaks, forever joyously beseeching ancient deities. Take it or leave it.
This reviewer is now officially sold on Phurpa, though, having only been vaguely aware of them before encountering Gyer Ro. It may be something of an acquired taste, but so are almost all things that are truly worth getting into. Get your wallet out, and get yourself some Russian ritual Bon chants.