Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble — Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016)
“Egoes War,” a seething fog of darkness eventually cut by Alex Wing’s distorted, yelping guitar, is a dramatic and fitting opening to Mandorla Awakening II, Nicole Mitchell’s latest sci-fi-inspired album. Mitchell’s flute is a key part of the tumult, dancing in aggressive spirals.
This is familiar turf for Mitchell. I remember being impressed by her album Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), based on Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, in which Earth encounters an alien race that advances itself by swapping genes with other species. The track “Adrenalin,” with its wordless vocal wails, reflects the disorienting madness that would have to come with this transformation, and the conflicting emotions of humanity being simultaneously invaded and improved. The album’s grand finale “seems like the opening to a grand unknown, rather than a resolution,” as I wrote back then.
Mandorla Awakening presents a similar other-worldliness, though ritualistic beats (including swinging, danceable ones), ecstatic free jams, and chaotic eddies of sound.
But it also draws from soul, gospel, and funk with poet avery r. young singing Mitchell’s lyrics about perseverance. “Staircase Struggle” delivers a straight beat with flute and guitar tracing free spirals behind the jam. “We keep on doin’ the same thing / Over and over, and over again,” young sings, eventually leading into a Mitchell poem about social change.
If Mandorla‘s music seems earthbound compared to Xenogenesis, it’s because the story is, too. A global pandemic has left the remains of civilization under totalitarian rule, but a group of survivors has escaped to an isolated island, where they’ve built a happy, functioning society. The central conflict comes with the arrival of two people from the outside world. As Mitchell told the Chicago Reader, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”
The story culminates with the cooldown jam of “Mandorla Island” and the clackety, celebratory funk of “Timewrap.” The latter is a bit like an encore piece — the album was recorded live in 2015 — and it’s a highlight. But rather than “give away” the musical ending, I’ll finish with “Dance of Many Hands,” an earlier track that’s a small story in itself. It opens with an airy, optimistic jam followed by a brief tribal drum solo by Jovia Armstrong and elegiac cello by Tomeka Reid.