Pianist/harpist/composer Irminsul has assembled a magnum opus with his latest release Strange Waters, and it’s bound to set Hawaiian alternative music on its head. The Big Island musician is known for The Kona Rogues album Batten Down The Hatches and for his work with the acclaimed Kona Harp Ensemble.
Irminsul has harnessed the piano, the well-known rock ensemble, and his signature electronic Celtic harp into an almost frightening machine. One that crafts, through the lens of progressive/art rock with occasional glints of electronica sizzle, a solo venture into untrodden aural territory. Wielding a brilliant mastery of the piano and singer-songwriting, along with thundering and soaring synthesizers, Irminsul elicited the help of his longtime comrade and drum master James Celestino (The Gypsy Johns) to produce a new yet legacy built sound. A sound that brings no calm security yet goads you into getting even deeper into the water.
Strange Waters has more than the usual palette of influences. From Irminsul’s youth, you have strains of YES, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, and Elton John. From his later life, the shimmering soundscapes of Ultravox and Killing Joke, braided into the foreboding electronic work of Gary Numan and Tangerine Dream. Such a heady mix could easily collide into nothingness – matter meets antimatter – yet, in Strange Waters it births itself as something heart-achingly familiar while jarringly new and unique.
But there is so much more to the album. From a writing perspective, it is an anthology of existential pieces derived from Irminsul’s own life as a “flown here” artist on the islands. Its unabashed truth and clarity lunge forth, with songs that tell of wonder, transformation, fright, righteous indignation, and outright brushes with death. It puts a hammer to the popular myths of people desiring life in Hawai’i, who refuse to come to grips with the real island, and the Indigenous people who live on it. It pulls the curtains away from feel-good tales and replaces them with sonnets of even more miraculous possibilities.
As can be imagined, Strange Waters steps into the world of social commentary, the political, the matters of right and wrong. The track “My Name Is Abel” is an outward homage to a Kanaka icon, Uncle Abel, who was evicted from his home on the only piece of sovereign-declared turf in Hawai’i at Kawa’a beach. It’s also a song of confrontational protest at the future faced by the great Mauna Kea Mountain and embraced by many Kia’i (protectors) of the mountain.
There are also straight-up politics in cuts like “And You Were Asleep,” a frightening look at a people lulled into a societal coma as authoritarian forces take over their lives. “Burn It Down” is a stripped-down piano and vocal track describing a force of action when everything about “the system” has failed.
And then, the intensely personal. “Lavender Candle” is an amusing and Kate Bush-esque vignette of a young boy discovering his grandmother’s treasure trove of witchy artifacts hidden in her attic for years. “Drift Away” is a teary solo, about coming to grips with his wife’s incessant drive to dive in somewhat dangerous coastal waters and the fear of losing her.
From any angle, Strange Waters is a wild ride of emotions and adventures. It’s an exercise in musical self-reevaluation and reinvention. A promise that you can stand on the shoulders of giants yet stand-alone, in a place that wasn’t anything like you imagined it would be before coming here. A place that proved to be so much more.
Strange Waters is available on Spotify, iTunes, AppleMusic, and all DistroKid outlets, as well as Bandcamp. (https://irminsul.bandcamp.com/album/strange-waters)
More music from Irminsul can be found on Bandcamp (Irminsul), Soundcloud (Irminsul Music), and on Facebook pages @TheKonaRogues @OpusphereMusic
Listen to a podcast with Irminsul here.