Makyo :: Swara Mandala
While the first entryway for American culture to Eastern thought was academia, modern times has seen an influx of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy in as wide-ranging a form as greeting cards, journals and calendars, as well as bank commercials and automobile ads. The premise: serenity and peacefulness, as if meditation was something purchased rather than serious discipline. Within that pipeline has come an overwhelming, often overbearing, amount of chill-out and New Age music attempting to capitalize on the same human yearning for placidity as their more blatant capitalistic counterparts.
Seemingly more, let us rephrase. An illusion is an illusion is confusion, which leads us to Makyo. Coined by headmaster DJ Gio and referring to a Buddhist technique whereby mind-altering states are achieved through meditation, the Japanese crew explains their music as "cutting through this illusion in a search for something pure." This is the sort of claim made by most in this industry. The difference is, in Makyo the goal is achieved.
Like their previous records, Yakshini and Vismaya, Swara Mandala is not composed so much of songs as states of mind. Seven tracks deep, the shortest nears seven minutes, the longest, over eleven. There is a mastery of hypnotism here, more so than on prior works. Makyo has always created great songs, but not necessarily compiled onto one album. Swara Mandala is a mature step; there is no difference in approach, only execution. As always: long landscapes based on simple, catchy rhythms, using warm basslines and synths and clean percussion hits. Underneath a fluid drum beat will be escapades and serenades of fluctuating tones - bells, keyboards, chopped vocals, techy synths (perhaps recalling Gio's days as a guitarist in a punk band). This integration of philosophy and music, this application of Zen Buddhist ideas into modern folkloric sounds, is trademark to the Dakini label, with Makyo as their constant source of inspiration.
Perhaps it would be easier to explain by first exploring the source. The term mandala, which simply means "circle," is a meditation tool. It is not confined to the East; through the mythological work of Joseph Campbell and psychology of Carl Jung we have learned this sort of "circling" arose spontaneously around the globe. While it has served many functions, here we will identify one. By drawing symbols within the circle (deities, animals, various levels of human existence), one becomes so focused on that particular mandala everything else dissolves. In yoga this is called dharana, fixed concentration, and by using one's dristi (gazing point) upon the mandala, all thought is consumed by this image. Basically you focus so much on one thing everything is understood as inherent within it. Eventually, a breakthrough occurs where all thought is suspended. The bridge between thought and action - the rectification of duality - is built. Form becomes formless.
For one not particularly attuned to meditation, this itself will sound nonsensical (a perfect reason the Japanese devised the koan). Yet this very focal point, the merging of opposites, lies at the foundation of every world religious tradition, our own included. In this understanding, reaching or becoming God is attainable in this lifetime, as there is no separation between doing and Doer. There is little irony that the epitome of blasphemy is the very goal itself.
Getting back to the beginning of this review, meditation is a discipline, and a studious one at that. Sitting in stillness, while sounding easy, is perhaps the most challenging ambition of the human race. Thoughts do not subside, even for the most experienced practitioner, but how we filter and react to them can change. In this light, meditation is an alchemy of spirit made flesh. There are many ways of tuning in to these frequencies (as an old Muslim saying goes, many tributaries spill into one sea): yoga, prayer, basketball, wind surfing and, to the point at hand, music.
Now we may be able to wrap our heads around "Zen Dub," as Gio calls Makyo's sonic creations - as much as words will allow us to wrap anything. More importantly than critique is the effect these sounds have on the receptor. The peaceful "Clarity (snow melting mix)" and gorgeously titled "Skin as soft as starlight" summate the idea: a sense of clear vision when surrendering to ambient rhythmic architecture. And while many of the chill-out camp loop mediocrity and call it relaxing, Makyo has achieved a true sense of meditation with their records. Even when more upbeat, as with the opening "Clarity (soft prana mix)," they pick up the BPM and still eradicate a seductive illusion. In repetition lies magic, for by the discipline of focus everything becomes clear. With a career 12 years strong, Makyo has reserved a place in a small sector of the, still considered, niche global electronica market. Fortunately for readers of this site, and others seeking out new ways to soundtrack their lives, we have one more buzz to add to the bin.