Sometimes, simple can do a lot more for a group’s sound than anything steeped in grandiosity ever could, and this is definitely true of Toronto Tabla Ensemble, whose new record Unexpected Guests is as diverse as it is cut and dry. There are no augmented props nor synthesized fluff for us to get around in Unexpected Guests, and though being a drum-focused LP, it’s sporting some of the more alluring vocal harmonies of any non-mainstream outing I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in 2020. For Toronto Tabla Ensemble, leaving the unnecessary junk on the sidelines makes the difference between a standard issue record and a homerun hit worth writing home about.
Everything in this album centers on the percussive presence, but in certain tracks – such as the title cut, “Toronto Tabla Youth Ensemble” and the charismatic “Raghupati,” – the other elements in the music forge as much of a moody narrative as lyrics would have been able to (if not a bit more due to the multi-interpretive nature of Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s surreal songwriting bend). The music video for “Unexpected Guests” is a visual experience as engaging as any live show, made all the more stimulating through its vivid use of color and contrast. We’re given a multitude of avenues to travel down when trying to understand the deeper meaning here, which is a lot more than I can say for other avant-garde works out at the moment.
The juxtaposition of melodic and physical tones and textures in “Monkey Tale,” “Maryem’s Here” and the heart-stopping “What’s Going On?” demonstrates a lot more duality than I was anticipating I’d find on a relatively obscure indie disc this summer. Though there’s not a lot of space between the instrumental components anywhere in Unexpected Guests, nothing here ever feels all that suffocating, which is difficult to achieve given the concept Toronto Tabla Ensemble is working with in this instance. They’ve got their own way of doing business in the studio, and that much is obvious even in the most cursory of observations.
I’m not usually much for this kind of music, but I would be outright lying if I said that Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s new record wasn’t a provocative listen that serious beat buffs everywhere need to be spinning this July. Unexpected Guests might take one of the stranger routes on the map to get there, but it finds a sonic nirvana that will likely leave a lot of this group’s contemporaries a little more than envious as the year continues to go by. This is some top notch content, and I doubt I’m the only one who thinks so.