LUIS PESTANA – ROSA PANO (Orange Milk, 2020)

The Portuguese experimental artist finds a home on Orange Milk Records, but his unique style establishes him as a bit of an outlier of that acclaimed label.

It’s evident even from the cover art that Luis Pestana is traveling on a slightly different road from his labelmates on the trailblazing Ohio-based Orange Milk imprint with his debut solo album, Rosa Pano. While OM releases tend to use garish, multicolored, over-the-top art (often created by label co-founder Keith Rankin), Rosa Pano’s cover – courtesy of painter Mariusz Lewandowski – strikes a more subtle pose, as if it should adorn a more conventional classical or jazz album. What’s more, Pestana largely forgoes the twitchy, mile-a-minute electronic flurry that brilliantly makes up so much of OM’s catalog. But make no mistake: Rosa Pano is a unique, haunting, and deeply strange listening experience.

Formerly a guitarist for the doom/post-rock outfit LÖBO, Pestana’s first solo outing – available on cassette and digital download – seems to be an attempt to live within the aura of experimental electronic music, but with more organic textures (much like Jordan Reyes’ latest album, Sand Like Stardust). The opening track, “Oneia,” is a striking overture to the proceedings, as ethereal yet tense female vocalizations accompany soaring instrumentation and  booming percussion, as if part of a dystopian film score. Lone synthesizer notes rise out of the noise. There is no silence between the tracks on Rosa Pano – giving the album the feeling of one complete piece – so “Oneia” leads into the foreboding church bells and swelling chords of “Sangra,” before rapid-fire synth stabs and disembodied vocals soon take over, bringing the music closer to the typical Orange Milk aesthetic. Pestana seems intent on creating an atmosphere rich with mystery and a deep sense of foreboding.

Regardless of the somewhat contemporary-sounding industrial/noise elements that spread out all over Rosa Pano, Pestana enthusiastically infuses the album with folklore native to his home country. On the gorgeous and moving “Ao Romper da Bela Aurora,” Pestana takes an earnest and ambitious stab at what I believe to be a traditional Portuguese folk song (I can only hazard a somewhat educated guess, as there’s precious little press material available for this album, perhaps adding to the overall mystique). The song, which translates to “A Break from the Beautiful Dawn,” uses hurdy-gurdy and zither as its instrumental foundation while operatic vocals are clearly the emotional centerpiece. The song pulls the listener out of the thick experimental haze of previous tracks and provides something of a cleansing. It’s an unexpected but welcome twist.

Complexities abound elsewhere, as on “Asa Machina,” which begins life as something of a minimalist, Reichian piece before persistent zither chords mesh with insistent synth figures and another score-like swell builds up, complete with vocals and a generally spacey atmosphere. If Pestana has no designs on film scoring, he may want to reconsider. The eclectic world-building contained within these eight tracks is dense and palpable.

Rosa Pano closes with its title track, an ambitious, nine-minute ride complete with howls – either animal or synthetic, or perhaps a combination of both – that lead to a variety of instruments coalescing into a packed yet calming drone. There’s certainly an ambient aspect to the track, but the random spikes of samples make the experience a bit too unsettling to categorize it that way. “Traditional folk-inspired ambient noise” may be more fitting. Luis Pestana takes inspiration from a variety of sources, and in doing so, he’s created an album that may be its very own category. Rosa Pano checks off plenty of boxes that will please lovers of music that is bold, daring, inspirational, and occasionally a bit frightening.

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