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Just two winters ago, American composer and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia (rah-FEEK BAH-tia) found himself trudging through the snow to the front door of Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavík, Iceland for the first time. He and his producer and musical accomplice Alexander Overington travelled across the Atlantic to work with Valgeir Sigurðsson, who they sought out on account of his predilection for exposing the new within the known.
As the secret weapon in crafting Björk’s Vespertine and Medulla, and, more recently, as co-producer of Feist’s Metals, Sigurðsson knows a thing or two about constructing ornately detailed and highly original sonic universes. Yet, after spending a week helping to realize Bhatia’s combination of driving, glitch-infused beats, blistering improvisation, and expansive production, Sigurðsson remarks that their time together “felt like learning a new language.”
Since making the move to Brooklyn in 2010, Bhatia has “wasted no time grabbing wider attention” (Time Out New York), performing in and out of town with his co-conspirators Jeremy Viner (woodwinds), Jackson Hill (bass), and Alex Ritz (drums). Yet, the most exciting part of Bhatia’s endeavors are the recordings that he and his collaborators have been silently working to perfect for the past two years. This fall, they debut this new sound via two releases on the Rest Assured imprint: the Strata EP and Yes It Will LP.
The Strata EP is a manifesto; a primer in the “new language” that Sigurðsson refers to. The first half features two expansively produced originals (“Sunshower” and “Greenhouse”) propelled by woozy, nod-inducing beats, wall-of-sound orchestrations, and anthemic melodies. On “Statements,” a cameo verse from Anti-Pop Consortium’s High Priest weaves through a maze of constantly shifting trap beats, processed woodwinds, clustered strings, and guitar harmonics. The EP closes with a rendition of Flying Lotus’ “Pickled!”, which reimagines the stacked synthesizers of the original with tiers of processed acoustic sounds. For most bands, attempting a FlyLo cover would be an exercise in futility, but Bhatia and his collaborators use each section of the original as a point of departure into exciting and unexplored territory.
Bhatia’s debut LP, Yes It Will, is one for the crate diggers of today. It’s an album for the album adherents, the champions of the LP format; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Explosive improvisations are elevated by layers of overdubs and processing to create a lush and highly detailed musical statement. The vast yet intricate, ship-in-a-bottle production of tracks like “Open Spaces; Open Minds” and “Once” is juxtaposed against rawer cuts like “Annihilator Gators,” which features instrumental explorations and sound design that carefully emulate the technical quirks of 60’s Impulse! live recordings. After six originals, the album closes with a cathartic instrumental rework of Sam Cooke’s civil-rights focused classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Special guests Vijay Iyer and Billy Hart, two of Bhatia’s closest musical mentors, deliver standout performances alongside members of the experimental chamber ensembles ICE and JACK, all grounded by the well-oiled machine formed by Bhatia and his bandmates. All of this is framed in a rhythmic lexicon that reconciles Aphex Twin, Madlib, and Elvin Jones. High Priest proclaims, “this is the type of joint that can exist in both beat and jazz canons successfully.”
The first generation American son of East African Indian immigrants, Bhatia was born and raised in North Carolina. As a child, he would sit in front of the radio for hours with a blank cassette ready, waiting to bootleg the latest singles from emcees like The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes. Bhatia picked up the violin and learned to play it by ear at age six, later switching to guitar. Coming of age in the South in the aftermath of 9/11, Bhatia began to notice a conspicuous absence of people who looked like himself in the arts, and started to see music as a way to represent. College was a blur of performance residencies, recording experiments, and late-night listening sessions with Hill, Ritz, and Overington; groundwork for the vision realized on these releases.
Drawing on and responding to several streams of information – cultural, musical, and generational – the Strata EP and Yes It Will LP represent the culmination of Bhatia’s experiences to date. This is an outpouring of new ideas for a new generation of listeners who hear a common thread in the music of John Coltrane and Flying Lotus, Steve Reich and Tyondai Braxton, Jimi Hendrix and Colin Stetson. Clearly, Bhatia’s music is not a recombination of genres; rather, it’s the sound of a breadth of experiences and influences filtered through a unique perspective: an entirely new beast.