British electronic instrumentalist Banco de Gaia‘s second album Last Train to Lhasa (1995) reaches the ripe old age of twenty years this week. Banco de Gaia – real name Toby Marks – apparently joined the Tibet Support Group (this is according to Wikipedia, so take it with a pinch of Himalayan Sea Salt), and decided to make an album in support of the Tibetan freedom movement.
Whether you sympathise with the sentiment or not, it’s difficult not to love the title track, which opens the album, as a guitar riff and chanted vocals carry you on a fantastic voyage for almost twelve minutes. It’s hypnotic and repetitive, but also varied enough to keep you listening, and also very beautiful.
You’ll hardly notice when this mixes into the distinctly Asian sounding Kuos, which feels as though it belongs somewhere high in the Himalayas. Or would, if they listen to a lot of instrumental trance music up there – it’s difficult to know. This is shorter, and a considerably less dramatic piece. It’s rather less memorable too, but the previous track leaves a lot to live up to.
Albums such as this one are perhaps better viewed as one whole, though, rather than the sum of their individual tracks. We’re definitely on a journey here, and China (Clouds Not Mountains) tells a vivid and evocative story of Tibet’s recent history, before mixing into the gentler and more subtle Amber.
The tribal Kincajou, also the second single after the title track, sounds almost out of place initially, until the sampled monastic-style chanting turns up, and again, as with most of the pieces on here, six or seven minutes seems like nothing at all as you drift along with the music. It really is exceptionally good.
White Paint is almost euphoric, and full of atmosphere and suspense, until the counter-melodies and arpeggios turn up halfway through. It mixes into 887 (Structure), a more repetitive piece, again with an atmospheric, almost chilling edge to it.
Disc two brings longer, more exploratory takes on Kuos, Kincajou, and an additional piece called Eagle, but it seems to me that these are bonus tracks rather than core parts of the album (and anyway, one of them is 36 minutes long, and trying to think of things to say while listening to that would be a very tall order). Whether you think of it as one, two, three, or even four discs (see below), ultimately Last Train to Lhasa is an accomplished album, evocative and full of atmosphere.
You may still be able to find the original version of Last Train to Lhasa or the more recent digital edition, but at the time of writing there are rumours of a limited edition four-disc version which may prove to be the one to go for.