May 14, 2024

Some 50 years ago, László Mándoki was a dissident student in communist Hungary. With strong political views coupled with a love of western music, especially prog rock and jazz fusion, his protest songs were bound to draw attention, and he found himself constantly in trouble with the authorities; censored, often banned, and forbidden to travel. However, he announced his intention to one day make music with all his heroes from the west, and staged a daring escape via Austria to Germany, where he began his professional musical career in earnest under the anglicised name of Leslie Mandoki. He was a member of the German band entry for Eurovision in 1979, and started producing for a number of top names, but his dream finally came to fruition when he started the band Mandoki Soulmates in 1992. Incredibly, founder members included such top names as Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, Jack Bruce, flamenco-rock legend Al Di Meola, David Clayton-Thomas from Blood, Sweat & Tears, Bobby Kimball from Toto, and the Brecker Brothers amongst others.

With every release, the band roster changes – Chaka Khan has been a notable inclusion – but Mandoki’s ability to unify such diverse legends, band leaders in their own right, under his own banner should cause anyone to sit up and take notice. Their new album, A Memory Of Our Future, was released in May 2024, and again, the list of collaborators on the front cover is astonishing: keyboard wizard Tony Carey, (responsible for the iconic opening sequence of Tarot Woman on Rainbow Rising); drum supremo Simon Phillips, (equally at home behind the kit on standard rock classics or advanced fusion), Jesse Siebenberg and Mark Hart from Supertramp, and more. No less than 17 musicians are listed.

At 80 minutes long, Mandoki is clearly not messing around, and the album is available as a 180g double LP complete with a 12-page booklet, or a limited edition PocketPac with 24-page booklet, in addition to standard jewel case CD and digital formats.

As ever, the lyrics, all by Mandoki, are heavy on the anti-oppression side, politically charged, and full of nostalgia and thankfulness by turns. The pieces are complex, and the production is lush and layered, with instruments dropping in and out of the mix as required. The album starts with the dystopian Blood In The Water, which laments, in Mandoki’s description, ‘a labyrinth of crises in a world without a compass, where unifying and stabilizing movements in society have crumbled.’ This is also the lead single for the album, and the video can be viewed at the foot of this page. It has one of the catchiest hooks on the album, but also gives a true flavour of what is to come, with its exotic instrumentation and masses of improv. It starts with a trilling pan pipe backing, then drops to a percussion-led organ solo with soft guitar chords, then we get a full-on pan pipe solo backed with cello – definitely proggy, despite the basic 4/4 rhythm. It eventually resolves to an ’80s-style soft pop-rocker, although continues to cycle through tribal beats and gentle soundscapes with tastefully sparse instrumentation.

One thing I would say is that it’s definitely soft rock, easy listening almost, despite the damning lyrics and complex arrangements. Second track The Wanderer is a song of a freedom-seeking traveller, with a lot of woodwind in the intro, which would work perfectly well as a Disney anthem. Mandoki’s voice is pleasantly soft and melodic, and none of the instruments is mixed to stand out. The Big Quit is another hooky pop number, but it takes a number of twists and turns, adding female vocals, eastern-inspired scales, soprano sax and some wicked bass work. Eventually it circles back to the main theme, and it’s a bit of a surprise to find we are still on the same song, 8½ minutes in.

Mandoki Soulmates 20th Anniversary at the Palace of Arts, Budapest

If you like to hear percussion, then the whole album is a treat; there are all kinds of drums going on most of the time, contributing the exotically tropical vibe. It’s is all perfectly executed, if a bit soft, considering the overriding subject matter. The thematic content is summed up pretty well in the track Matchbox Racing, which includes two intertwining themes: firstly, the exhortation ‘Don’t dream your life, live your dreams’, (sage advice from Mandoki’s dad), and secondly, the search for freedom from oppression. To Mandoki as a child, it was all about Matchbox cars, described as ‘little toy cars of freedom’ in the song, delivered in ‘that overseas package from a place I dreamed to be.’ After seven minutes, it segues directly into the only instrumental on the album, a more rocky and definitely proggy piece named We Stay Loud.

The whole set draws to a conclusion with Melting Pot, with its groovy, swinging intro in 6/8 time, subtle, obscure vocals and, as always, loads of percussion. This piece is quite strangely constructed, with everything happening at once, until a breakout of virtuoso classical piano at about three minutes, accompanied by strings, keyboards and ambient vocals. Some sax and sitar come in after a while, just because, well why not?

With its soft, gentle ambience and easy-listening kind of vibe, it would be easy to put this album on in the background and just let it play for nearly an hour and a half without giving it much thought. But stick it under headphones, give it a proper listen, and just revel in the lush layering and carefully mixed textures. There is so much going on all the time, and with those names on board, you can bet it’s all good. Fans of fretless bass might especially appreciate it. And of course, there is that extra piquancy, considering that Mandoki grew up in an atmosphere where none of this was possible, and yet he made it all happen. Powerful stuff indeed.

A Memory Of Our Future by Mandoki Soulmates is out now on InsideOutRecords.