Distinguished by their penchant for sitars, sarods, and a zealous indulgence in all things Eastern, Kula Shaker rarely struggled to find attention amid a glut of streamlined post-Britpop acts in the late ‘90s. And in those instances when their plucky sound alone couldn’t turn heads, the group counted on litigious frontman Crispian Mills to express his love for the swastika. Perhaps not all publicity is good publicity, as the group disbanded just before the turn of the century to pursue solo ventures after interest in their collective output began to wane. Pilgrims Progress is the group’s second album since returning from that musical abyss in 2007, straying somewhat from their fanatical devotion to Eastern mysticism and impassioned psychedelic rock to settle—if only somewhat, again—into a temperate folk groove.
That’s not to say the Eastern influence has been banished outright, but Mills now thinks better of brazenly flaunting Sanskrit chorus lines. Instead, his compositions incorporate these elements far more subtly: “To Wait Till I Come” is a brooding number built on shrill sitar arrangements, ethereal chimes, and eerie vocal samples, while “Only Love” sports wonderful female Indian backing vocals. Mills’s staunch commitment to these influences has often seemed trite and overworked, but his newfound discretion with regard to his Eastern soft spot works wonders for Kula Shaker’s sound.
Pilgrims Progress is also light on the manic arrangements and haughty posturing that weighed down its predecessors, which makes for the most stripped down and organic Kula Shaker we’ve heard to date. The group is still very much influenced by the ‘60s, as illuminated by the modest production on the likes of “Ophelia,” “Cavalry,” and “Ruby,” recalling the progressive folk of Donovan and early Bob Dylan. Moreover, “Only Love” and “Barbara Ella” are peppered with Doors-esque Hammond organ solos, refining their ubiquitous ‘60s influences to craft the most genuine psychedelica in their catalogue. During the latter, Mills seizes on the opportunity to parade his accomplished falsetto with aplomb; a concrete highlight on an album where his vocals are consistently staggering.
Less is certainly more for Kula Shaker, then, with their eccentric sound of old curbed for an outing built on mature songwriting and solid technical performances. Mills is no less adventurous with Pilgrims Progress, but he’s far less reckless with his arrangements this time around. Even when “Figure It Out” dabbles with the post-Britpop sonic of their K days, and even as “Winter’s Call” stampedes through its balls-to-the-wall epic guitar solo, it feels like a more thoughtful Kula Shaker, one which no longer whores its quirky influences as a bankable gimmick.