Review: *Shels – ‘Plains Of The Purple Buffalo’

By Live4ever - Posted on 05 Sep 2011 at 6:10am

shelsPlains of the Purple Buffalo‘ is the second studio album from the British/American post-rock giant, *Shels. The announcement of the July 2011 sophomore record carried with it huge expectations following the release of *Shels’ 2007 debut LP ‘Sea of the Dying Dhow‘ -a genre reviving and painfully over-looked solid hour of smartly preened start/stop bustle, rated 4/5 by Kerrang, and 9/10 by Rock Sound.

A follow up was never going to be easy, and with seven band members all vying to express their take on the *Shels ethos of distinctive minimalism juxtaposed against blanket tectonic chunks of mind gouging rhythmic commotion, it’s easy to see why there was a four year waiting list to hear the next installment from this forward thinking, scene setting band.

*Shels can almost in fact not be referred to as a band, but as a super group. Vocalist and founding member Mehdi Safa recorded the album at his home in California, enlisting ex-members from acts such as Eden Maine, Fireapple Red, and of course, Devil Sold His Soul – spawned at the same time as *Shels from the ashes of the 2003 Mahumodo split, which saw vocalist Safa and drummer Tom Harriman cross the Atlantic to build their *Shels empire in California, while remaining Mahumodo band members recruited and continued in the UK under the DSHS banner.

Safa began recording the material for ‘Plains of the Purple Buffalo’ (title taken from the 1984 movie The Never Ending Story) in 2007, and in 2009 a hard drive crash meant a devastating loss of two years worth of recordings. A full year was spent attempting to reproduce the recordings but, eventually in 2010, Safa decided the replacement recordings did not do justice to the original ideas, and claims that up to 75% of the material we now hear on the album is taken from rough demos thrown together in the immediate hard-drive meltdown aftermath.

The fact that three quarters of this album was recorded frankly and immodestly in an audacious attempt to recapture as many of the lost ideas as possible does not manifest itsself as a negative. The honesty of expression and naked confidence in the opening eight minute track ‘Journey to the Plains‘ shows a level of gritty insolence that not only seems intended as a production value, but fits the bold timbre of the tune so well that the argument could be raised that without it, the work would lose pace as a satisfyingly unpolished showcase of a genre that is anything but contained.

The band understands not to over cook things however, and while lovers of the pneumatic thump that only post-rock can deliver will be treated to *Shels’ masterful crescendos in tracks such as ‘Butterflies on Luci’s Way‘ and ‘The Spirit Horse‘, there’s also entire cool down tracks available to keep the peace, such as ‘Atoll‘, ‘Conqueror‘, and ‘Waking‘.

‘Plains of the Purple Buffalo’ is a very personal album. An album for inspiring action and thought. Throughout the seventy plus minutes your mood will shift. You’ll be uplifted. You’ll feel happy and empowered. You’ll also feel genuine empathy for some apparent ‘sad situation’ every time the tempo and the melody drop to a passively strummed acoustic guitar and a ghostly vocal. And making you really feel something is of course is what *Shels want. It may have taken four years, but boy did they get it right.

(Ben Atherton)

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