Yossi Sassi - Desert Butterflies album cover as reviewed on The Phantom Tollboothpick-of-the-monthDesert Butterflies has all the elements of music that I love: inventive use of themes, blurring of genre lines, technical performance, attentiveness to melody, and solid performance. The pioneer of "Oriental Rock," Yossi Sassi delivers a memorable sophomore album.

Desert Butterflies
Artist: Yossi Sassi
Label: Vercords / Warner Music Group
Time: 11 tracks / 41:00 minutes

Released May 1st, Desert Butterflies is the sophomore solo album from producer, composer, and musician Yossi Sassi (Orphaned Land), and represents the continuation of his musical endeavor to merge cultures and traditions from around the world with contemporary music. The members of the Yossi Sassi group include Or Lubianiker (bass), Shay Ifrah (drums), Ben Azar (guitars), and Roei Fridman (percussion), and their foundational contributions to this production cannot be understated. Guest musicians include (but are not limited to) Roy Zu-arets (piano and Hammond), Daniel Hoffman (violins), and Itzhak Ventura (Arabic, Turkish and Persian ney). Additional vocals are provided by Mariangela Demurtas, Yosefa Zauosh, David Sossi, and Erez Lev Ari.

It almost doesn't seem right to call Yossi's music prog, because it is harnessing so many ethnic musical flavors – traditional and contemporary – and melding them into composites of incredibly unique flavors. Yossi is a self-proclaimed "pioneer of Oriental Rock," and so maybe that's the best label to put on Desert Butterflies (it's what I've listed him as in iTunes at any rate). Yet the album boasts a number of progressive elements, including (but not limited to) the incorporation of odd time signatures, incredible technicality, theme and variation, and diverse instrumentation. Another progressive element is the use of a unifying concept. Desert Butterflies plays with the idea of discovering beauty in unlikely places. As creatures which begin life unrealized, as crawling insects, butterflies must pass through metamorphosis in order to achieve the beauty of their final stage of life: a perfect metaphor of trial and achievement. Furthermore, the adaptability of such creatures to exist prominently in even the most arid and unfavorable of conditions speaks to their incredible resilience. The butterfly is an inspiration to ponder the deserts of life and, as Yossi puts it, "become the butterfly you can be."

Even without reading into the album's thematic concept, Yossi's music is inspiring stuff. His compositions are moving, energetic, and beautifully organic, utilizing the most basic concepts of melody to unify broad arrangements upon central themes. His focus is never to showcase his incredible musical ability, but to write and arrange music that communicates beauty, hope, and ambition, and that also connects to heritage, culture, and ethnic roots. In that regard, there's a bit of the whole world in Desert Butterflies – integral pieces of the vast society we call humanity.

"Orient Sun" begins the album with a gradual entrance, like the first rays of light on a warm morning: gentle electric guitar, bouzouki, timpani, and strings. The main theme, introduced so tentatively, suddenly explodes as the electric guitar – performed by Marty Friedman (formerly of Megadeth) – joins the unison refrain. It's amazing that a song built on only two melody lines can contain so much movement and fervor without sounding repetitive, but "Orient Sun" is a rousing opener, introducing first-time listeners (such as myself) to Yossi's unique compositional techniques. With the whine of a sitar, and a fading back-and-forth bass line, the track concludes like the fading of a sunset. The stillness that falls is immediately interrupted by "Fata Morgana" (Morgan le Fay, the symbol of a mirage), another track infused with an incredible amount of life and vitality – the perfect soundtrack for a busy marketplace scene. Moving between 6/8 and 4/4, the song is a composite of three different themes: the introductory melody carried by bouzouki and electric guitar; the refrain on bouzouki and acoustic guitar, backed by inarticulate choral voices; and the "bridge" which features chugging electric guitar and the first guitar solo on Desert Butterflies – performed by guest musician, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal of Guns 'N' Roses. The track concludes in a busy flourish of bouzouki, cymbals, and ney.

The third track, "Neo Quest," begins with 16th-note bass and drum stabs, against a tapestry of wavering electric guitar. This is the first composition on the album to provide a taste of Yossi's considerable ability on the electric guitar. Masterfully, he weaves the main theme over the ambient mix, building to the final, bouzouki-driven refrain. The outro is all guitar volume swells and pitch bends, embedded in a lush mix of piano, bass, strings, and chimes.

"Azadi" (the Persian word for "freedom") is written in 4/4, but the syncopated nature of its meter gives it a certain irregular motion. The instrumentation features primarily bouzouki, piano, bass, and miscellaneous hand percussion, so the track manages to be rich and full without a huge accompaniment while also maintaining an organic, naturalistic flavor. Yosefa Zauosh provides impressive backing vocals for this track, moving in wordless unison with the main theme: no small task, considering its frivolous motion. Roy Zu-arets' piano work is another highlight of "Azadi:" he plays in unison with Yossi during the main passages, and then – as the track lulls to hand percussion and bass stabs – performs a disconcerted, chromatic solo, before Yossi rejoins on the bouzouki and the pair play out the refrain to the track's conclusion.

"Believe" is the first of two songs on the album that feature lyrics (here, written and sung both in Italian and English). Guest vocalist, Mariangela Demurtas, provides a stunning voice for this memorable track, and Yossi changes hats to play acoustic guitar and provide backing vocals. If it weren't for the fact that it is written in 5/4, "Believe" could pass for the most straightforward, singable, pop-oriented composition on the album, which is why it stands as the album's "single" and has been featured as an official music video. "We're all the same, different just by name," Mariangela sings, calling upon the unity that encompasses all mankind: "I am you, and you are as I am, living simple life of simple men." There is freedom, the song proclaims, in choosing to lay down our personal differences and seeking peace and harmony through mutual understanding. The thing that unites us as human beings is our passion to believe in something.

One of my favorite compositions on the album, "Desert Butterfly" uniquely combines a 12-bar blues structure with monophonic unison across instruments, mixing a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor into the arrangement. The strong movement of the opening riff breaks twice for gentle acoustic guitar and bouzouki passages – as of sunlight filtered majestically through a butterfly's wings. The second break builds gradually to a half-time progression, providing the platform for Yossi's moving guitar solo. As the feedback growls, the bouzouki re-establishes the blues riff, and the band rejoins for one last run – joined this time by heavy electric guitar – to reach the track's loose conclusion.

"Inner Oasis" incorporates a number of the same elements as does "Desert Butterfly," beginning with the same type of monophonic unison, then evolving into a gentle and inventive blues jam – one of my favorite sections on the album – and from there moving into a double-timed romp, measured by the tense snap of electronic drums. The pair of solos on this track are perhaps two of the most impressive on the album in terms of technicality and rapidity - the first played by Yossi, and the second by Ben Azar. The ambient outro fades directly into "Shedding Soul," a short but extraordinarily beautiful composition. On the receding wave of guitar and gentle swell of ethereal string pads, the bouzouki establishes the main theme over acoustic guitar strumming gently in 6/8. A second acoustic guitar adds a harmonic part to compliment the melody, ending all too soon at just over 2:00 minutes.

"Jason's Butterflies" is another short track, less than one-and-a-half minutes in length, and consists entirely of a pair of electric guitars playing a rapidly ascending and descending riff in harmonic contrast. For such a short composition, its inspiration is incredibly rich: as Yossi attests, the "Jason" is none other than Jason Becker (Cacophony), who has been fighting ALS for decades.  In the face of such a degenerative condition, he could easily have given up his passion for writing music, and yet Jason continues composing to this day, utilizing eye movements and computer software to record his pieces.  With "Jason's Butterflies," Yossi demonstrates his own mastery as a composer in homage to Jason's extraordinary example. At its halfway point, the track becomes more akin to a Telemann Operation than a modern rock piece, as the guitars move in opposing melodies, as in a Baroque-era composition. Mimicking left- and right-hand response on piano, Yossi employs a type of call-and-answer melodic conversation between the two guitars, bringing the pair of melodies to a beautiful harmonic conclusion.  Recorded in Yossi's living room in one take, back in 1998 - before Desert Butterflies was anything more than a concept percolating beneath Yossi's creative surface - "Jason's Butterflies" is now an integral part of the album's over-arching concept, 16 years later.

After the previous reflective tracks, "Azul" ("blue") takes a much more driving approach. The overall sound of this track is such that Yossi might as well have arranged a Joe Satriani composition for the album. It utilizes the same type of stylistic guitar lead and band accompaniment: lead guitar moves in close tandem with a grooving bass line in a contemporary funk rock progression, providing ample support for bluesy riffs and a furious guitar solo. "Azul's" simple melody, a powerful and uplifting presence, is shared across guitars and bouzouki, demonstrating once again Yossi's masterful ability on all represented stringed instruments – particularly the infusion of melody and accompaniment on the bouzouki.

"Cocoon," the eleventh and final track on the album, is the first to feature Yossi in a predominant singing role. Written with minor tonality, the track contains a sense of dormancy and pain to be overcome. "You're breaking that heart [and] fighting the things that I knew," Yossi sings mournfully, recognizing a friend's oh-so-close potential, but also the unwillingness to make the final transformation: "You're letting your dream slip through." The electric guitar showcases the melody in prolific fashion and takes one final, soaring solo to conclude the track and the album. However, just before this instrumental ending, Yossi changes the chorus lyric subtly, to "You're letting your dream shine through," communicating the idea of light beginning to peek through the cracks in the cocoon as the butterfly emerges. Therefore, the album ultimately ends with this potential: rebirth, and the realization of a dream. There is also a limited edition bonus track, "Palm Tree Road," available as a download from Yossi's bandcamp page or on the digipak CD. This sparse, melodic composition on the acoustic guitar is one final instrumental, stapling a reflective sentiment as a post-script to the climactic ending of Desert Butterflies.

Yossi Sassi is an accomplished musician and composer, and it shows on this release. Desert Butterflies is the first album to which I've given a perfect rating, because I simply can't find anything to dislike about it. It has all the elements of music that I love: inventive use of themes, blurring of genre lines, technical performance, attentiveness to melody, and solid performance. This is especially a must-own for anyone who loves world music, ethnic instruments, and a healthy infusion of funk and blues. For everyone else, Desert Butterflies is an intriguing and uplifting album, and represents the perfect opportunity to broaden musical and cultural palates.

Justin Carlton

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