Mantras of Bön is less an album of music and more a recording of a religious ceremony. Containing precious little in the way of instrumentation beyond the human voice, it’s stubbornly minimal and caters to no one other than the ritual of which it is an integral part. And that’s exactly the point.
It’s impossible to speak of the Russian Buddhist collective group known as Phurpa without considering its background. Bön is the oldest Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, and the band takes its name from a type of knife used in special rituals. Phurpa, whose members are Alexei Tegin, Dmitry Globa, Eduard Utukin, Anastasia Tomskaya, and Pavel Selchukov, use a special method of vocalization called “rgyud-skad,” from the words “tantra” and “sound of the voice.” The intent of this style of singing is to provide deep meditation during ritual practice. Phurpa actively studies and practices the Bön tradition and has received training from masters of ritual technique. Their music is the sound of authentic tantric Bön traditional ritual.
Mantras of Bön is split into two parts. The first two tracks, taken from live performances in the group’s native Russia, contain a truly startling and primal vocal performance by Alissa Nicolai. Over vestigial electronic drones, she howls, bleats, shrieks, whispers, and growls like a possessed Lisa Gerrard. It is an incredible thing to hear, and I can only imagine the effect must be magnified a hundredfold when seen in-person. What little music exists is incidental; her ululation, in all its inhuman improvisation, is the sole focus.
The remaining three tracks are composed mostly of deep throat-singing and wordless chants from Phurpa themselves. There are touches of cymbals here and there to impart the ghost of rhythm, but once again, the true focus of the recording is the long series of chants.
Bear in mind that Mantras of Bön is not music in the traditional sense. All but one of the five tracks run longer than fifteen minutes, and the trio of chants vary quite little. Nicolai’s hellion vocalizing, while otherworldly, also becomes familiar once the initial marvel has passed. This is a glimpse into a profoundly held system of belief; a peeling back of the veil of Buddhist tradition. It is the ritual itself, rather than an interpretation of such. Such a recording, of course, is not for everyone. Those who have an understanding of the religion itself will likely connect with it on a profound level. Others, like myself, may marvel at the potential of human vocals contained herein without really understanding what is being expressed. Others still may find the album pointless and boring. Mantras of Bön is an album of drone, but the drone is sourced purely from the human throat.
Mantras of Bön is a work of dedicated human expression that’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and that’s something I’ve said only a handful of times. While I found it to be a fascinating listen, it’s completely understandable—even acceptable—that not everyone will find it so. Thus, Mantras of Bön is a difficult album to assign a rating; my score below doesn’t measure the quality of the listening experience, because there is so much potential for variation from the listener’s point of view given the nature of the sound. I’d like to add that I increased the score by one to reflect the high-quality production of the recording itself. Zoharum deserves credit for releasing an album as fringe and niche as this one.
01) Live in St. Petersburg
02) Live in Moscow
03) Mu-Ye: Live at CTM Berlin
05) Mi Dud