Essential albums: Banco De Gaia

Not only skilled with the recording studio and synthesisers, Toby Marks is also a versatile live musician. One senses a rock and roll heart beating in the middle of it all, and that puts a certain distance between Banco De Gaia and the synthetic panoramas of comparable electronic acts.

Banco De Gaia

country of origin:

Ethno-ambient, ethno-techno, ambient dub, psyambient, ambient rock

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Maya: 20th Anniversary Edition (1994, Disco Gecko)
  • Last Train To Lhasa: 20th Anniversary Edition (1995, Disco Gecko)
  • Big Men Cry: 20th Anniversary Edition (1997, Disco Gecko)
  • Magical Sounds: 20th Anniversary Edition (1999, Six Degrees)
  • Ten Years (2002, Six Degrees)
  • Ollopa: Apollo Remixed (2013, Disco Gecko)
  • The 9th of Nine Hearts (2016, Disco Gecko)

Reviewed by Mike G

Masterminded by one Toby MarksBanco De Gaia is often aligned with a family of sample-heavy, psychedelic, ethnically-flavoured ambient dub acts that appeared in the 90's including Loop Guru and Sounds From The Ground. The basic approach of ambient dub is looping, stretching and echoing a track's component parts ("redubbing" it) over long distances, grounding it with fat basslines and slow, chunky breakbeats and reggae patterns.

But while Banco De Gaia has been a general influence on the many exotic variations of ethno-techno-trance-dub, his own music is not so easy to pigeonhole. Not only skilled with the recording studio and synthesisers, Marks is also a versatile live musician. One senses a rock and roll heart beating in the middle of it all - inspired as much by progressive rockers like Pink Floyd as by the sounds of Jamaica or classic European ambient - and that puts a certain distance between Banco De Gaia and the synthetic panoramas of comparable electronic acts. What's more, it really is madly eclectic music. The grooves of hip hop, the simplicity of acid house and the looseness of jazz have all been crucial elements in Marks' music at some point. His more uptempo excursions are well suited to the dancefloor, as anyone who has witnessed his incendiary live performances could tell you.

90's classics

Although still recording and performing today, Banco De Gaia's creative heyday remains the 1990's during which he released an unbroken sequence of four superb and influential albums.

While the earliest albums boast some outstanding individual tracks - the often excellent Maya (1994) being the best among them - Banco's fourth album Last Train To Lhasa (1995) is the first time Marks completely ties together the disparate elements that were still coalescing on previous releases. It's a brilliant kaleidoscope of global beats and flavours, expertly arranged and stitched together with surreal sound-effects interludes ala Pink Floyd. There has always been an element of political awareness in his music and on Lhasa it's the Chinese occupation if Tibet, which on several tracks lends an extra poignancy. "China Clouds Not Mountains" literally aches with a sad, beautiful melody played on what sounds like a hammer dulcimer. Still, the album's busy poly-rhythms and rich melodies are often joyful, too.

Quite different but equally as good is Big Men Cry (1997), Banco's most tribal and most spacey album which boasts a slightly looser sound and an intense exploration of percussive rhythms in its first half. The second half gets into more atmospheric ambient territory, highlighted by the spine-tingling prog spacemusic epic "Star Station Earth". The Magical Sounds Of Banco De Gaia (1999), despite its silly name, is an imaginative and quirky collection of tuneful grooves and passages of pretty ambience. 10 Years (2002) is a double album compilation that's carefully compiled and highly recommended for newcomers, with an uptempo first disc balanced by a second that's more on the ambient tip.

The 2000's and beyond

Banco De Gaia's catalogue nearly disappeared in the late 1990's after the UK record company Planet Dog went bust. Eventually he was able to buy the rights back to his own music and during the 2000's North American label Six Degrees re-released most of his back catalogue, followed later by his own label Disco Gecko with another round of re-releases.

As for new material since the 1990's, Marks has released the occasional new album at a time when many artists are thriving in Banco De Gaia's wake, especially exponents of ethno-ambient and the chilled global exotica that's come out the psytrance and dub scenes. Which, perversely, is one reason why more recent Banco albums haven't had the same freshness or cut-through, including the 2013 release Apollo. How do you stand out in an overcrowded bazaar of artists working same genre, some of who may be offering wares - gulp - better than yours?

Cue Ollopa: Apollo Remixed (2013), an inspired creative decision to collaborate with some of the best electronic and downtempo talents of the generation that followed him. Downbeat psychedelic maestro Tripswitch reworks "Acquiescence", formerly a pleasant meeting of strings and operatic vocal, and turns it into a slow, hypnotic widescreen groove with intoxicating Arabic aromas. New Zealand duo Deep Fried Dub jettisons the unexciting rock drums of "Oriea" for a tight, crunching dub beat guaranteed to induce serious head nodding. And on it goes, nine remixes in all, most of them stellar. The odd one out - in terms of genealogy - is hippie techno outfit System 7 whose two members, Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, have a resume that pre-dates Banco de Gaia by decades. Here they deliver a sparkling remix of "For Such A Time", adding spiralling bell-like melodies and a thumping polyrhythm.

The 9th of Nine Hearts (2016) comes off the back of several well-received 20th Anniversary reissues of 90's Banco classics and finds him in shining form. Its inspired, powerful prog rock-inflected psychedelia provides the extra spark that’s often proved elusive on more recent Banco albums. There's strong writing, some rocking grooves, lush gliding panoramas, lovely wordless vocals and a profoundly cosmic undercurrent throughout. The live guest players - drums, bass, sax - also add a dimension that's missing from a lot of current sample-based downtempo exotica. All up, Nine Hearts is his strongest album of new material since 1998’s Magical Sounds.

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