When we last left John Corda, in the guise of drum 'n' bass superhero Mashed Buddha, on his full-length CD subdue your mind, he was adding elements, musical elements, to a genre that doesn't go much past mechanical repetition in rhythm and bleating electro sounds for tunes. To this, he added ideas such as composing songs - with themes that are developed, different levels of sound density, build ups and break downs - and adding elements of funk, rare groove, and heavy bass. Mashed Buddha conceives of his songs and his entire records in compositional terms. In other words, on Zen Conspiracy he keeps things moving like in any good story.
The title track has a stately intro and then the jungle groove kicks in like the opening credit sequence of the coolest noir romance. The relentless, ecstatic drum beat undergirds soulful piano, skittering synth sounds, and deep bass that rumbles with syncopation like dub reggae on ecstasy. The break down adds the earthiness of Afro-Cuban drums and percussion and Latin piano loops that evoke noir mystery. The song's elements mix, match, swoop down and buildup to unexpected plateaus of resolution. Like his preview EP Four Keys to Zen, this record brings in the element of jazz improvisation. Corda plays a solo that jazzes out but in the soul/blues styles of Ramsey Lewis or Stevie Wonder. This organic, earthbound element offers a nice contrast to the electronica, pumping more blood into the music.
Simplicity returns with the brief interlude "Laz" . Based on a simple funky lick and clocking in at about 90 seconds, it still has a verse and chorus, played on rich sounding keyboards and a skittish percussive track over a phat drum beat, which makes this an actual song. This leads to the next cut, "Temptation" . This song has an easy groove that invites sampling for a rapper, but only one that is having an early '90s flashback. The multiple tracks of clavinet-sounding keyboards are simply fresh. Corda's solo has an unfettered joy in its tap dancing rhythms and dense melodic runs. The shifting harmonies keep the music from getting static, and the orchestration of the various melodies and sounds, all building off of one simple riff, are a lesson is how to write a killer track. The keyboard runs drop out, multiply, layer over, and move away from each other. Mashed Buddha always has something happening in his songs.
"Hype" shows how much nuanced feeling can be communicated through electronica. The beat, a bouncy soul rock groove that is mixed with a recurring sound of reverse echoes or a camera shutter - hype, ya heard? - and low end synth licks, is perfect for the psychedelic vogueing that is going on... in my mind. Over top of this rolling river of sound are mysterioso vocals of a self-help nature by the mind-bender Uri Geller; who mutters phrases like, "part three stay positive, relaxed and confident" and "part one clearing your mind" that also cleverly herald another instrumental layer or counter melody from the keyboard. Each element added is not only complementary, but of a different texture. After the break down, previously heard parts of the song - Fender Rhodes chords, wailing synthesizers - come back, but in a developed or altered state. The synth gets edgier, the hype shutter sound gets denser, the low end blasts forth with a nasty fuzzzzz sound.
Just when you thought he would wane a bit from the killin' ideas and playing, he picks up the pace and not only gets more intense, but weirder. "Tryst" is perhaps the quintessential song on the CD. The beat is jungle drum 'n' bass at its most frenzied. The keyboard lick is a combination of chords and melody filtered through the densest white noise. The drum beat is mixed with percussive ghosts of sound that flit around like insects. A counter melody plays with a sound like the spectral organ of Mike Ratledge of the Soft Machine. The piece builds like a hiker climbing a slope to the level peak, resting, then climbing the next hill. In the middle of the song, there is the almost traditional electronica break down. But unlike the cliched break with a bleating mechanoid pulse or a wannabe Latin keyboard riff, here the song rolls into a swirling tsunami of electronic and percussive sounds. The crashing of the waves slides into a heavenly cloud of soulful jazz. Here, Corda takes a piano solo that rocks one soulful statement after the other, bringing that old time freedom jazz feeling to end of the musical journey.
"Arcane Persuasion" ends the CD with a slow, stately, Gothic finale. A pipe organ opens, then the bleating mechanoid sound I dissed earlier comes in, but morphs in and out of demented glockenspiel notes and fuzzy tubular bells.
Let's be clear: I wouldn't say I'm an electronica fan by any stretch. Most of it is boring and soulless and uninspired. It says a lot about an artist when he can take parts of a style of music one hates and make music one likes. It's like turning s%$t into gold. His next record should be called The Alchemist.