Sound — 9
Coming from a death metal vantage point, one could be excused for thinking that "Saurian Meditation" is at best a collection of riffs and acoustic sections which were abandoned in a viewless, sand-chocked crypt with all the other rejected material from Karl Sanders' main project, the tech-death giant Nile. This was certainly my position back in 2007, when I first heard of Sanders' first solo album, and it took me six years and a general hiatus from anything remotely metal to get me to revise this, rather hasted, impression. "Saurian Meditation" continues Sanders' explorations into the middle-eastern sound, discarding most, if not all, of his traditional guitar-work from Nile. As such, the main main instruments used on the album are the baglama saz with its trebly-bouncing sound and more subdued acoustic guitar. The electric guitar plays mostly a background role, with the prominent exception of "Of the Sleep of Ishtar," which contains a dramatic lead played on an electric guitar, which is then followed by a dream-like acoustic section. The above mentioned "Of the Sleep of Ishtar" carries a vibe similar to Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan," both in the terms of structure and general sound of the song, and the same dream-like feeling. However, while the rest of the songs follow the relaxed tempo and meditative groove of "Of the Sleep of Ishtar," they do not carry over the rather "light" feel of the song. "Saurian Meditation" is essentially a very dark-sounding album, rarely succumbing to more traditional "western" melodic values, preferring instead to stick to unsettling timbres and arabesque mosaics of melody and rhythm. To continue this effect, Karl Sanders often plays quarter steps on the inter-frets of his baglama saz, following exotic scales over the usual minor/major western ones. Unlike what one might think, he doesn't stick to just to the Phrygian Major mode to achieve a middle-eastern sound, "Saurian Meditation"'s sound is derived mostly from the interplay between the melodies played on either the guitar or the saz and the rhythm of the percussion. A mere listen to "The Elder God Shrine" shows how much has Karl matured in playing traditional instruments since the days of "To Dream of Ur," from Nile's second record, "Black Seeds of Vengeance." Traditional drumming on "Saurian Meditations" is sparse, and even when present it never falls back on just the old 4/4 measure on the bass drum and the snare. The percussion work varies from singular taps to sections utilizing the better part of the drum kit and the other traditional, middle-eastern percussion. The pacing is mostly subdued, rarely going beyond moderately fast. A steady beat persists through most of the songs, which keeps the whole of "Saurian Meditation" in a very apt, meditative mood.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrics, much like the traditional drumming, are sparse. Some songs have chants or incantations, and "The Forbidden Path Across the Chasm of Self-Realization" has a spoken word section, but only "Of the Sleep of Ishtar" has proper lyrics. The song doesn't so much recant an event in the life of the famous Mesopotamian goddess or dwell on her faithful, but, much like the rest of the album, seems to be a meditation on her - similar to what an acolyte of Ishtar might have, when contemplating in front of her idol. While seeming strange and unconnected, at first, the lyrics achieve what I believe was the idea - to convey an impression of Ishtar, almost by an esoteric means, rather than a story containing her. "The Elder God Shrine" has a single line of lyrics, but a rather powerful one - "Ia! Ia Dagon!" simultaneously refering both to the god Dagon, and the creature Dagon from the stories by H.P. Lovecraft, one of Sanders' most persistent themes. As per the vocals, they are mostly a mixed bag. Some chants sounding more in place than others, and even the grunting (a la "Das Rachekriegslied der Assyriche") feels organic, keeping in mind that Saurian Meditation is supposed to be an unnerving experience, rather than a melodic one. Mike Brezeale is the main vocalist, though he is joined by a plethora of back vocals on some sections (Dallas Toler-Wade and Juan Gonzalez on "The Elder God Shrine").
Overall Impression — 8
To be frank, I no longer believe that an opinion on the quality of a song, album or a band, can be expressed by a number, so I will simply say that "Saurian Meditation" is a very unique, very dark musical experience, and a refreshing one, ironically since it deals mostly with very old, dusty and hot themes. It is very much akin to what Karl has done with the acoustic sections in Nile, and it more or less stays within that comfort zone. While honest, it is a much more raw listen than the followup, "Saurian Exorcisms," but raw needn't imply worse. "Saurian Meditation" is simply something that warrants attention from someone who is interested in ambient/middle-eastern music. I shall end my impression by paraphrasing one of Karl Sanders' literary heroes, H-P. Lovecraft: while listening to "Saurian Meditation," I pictured all the splendors of an age so distant that Chaldaea could not recall it, and thought of Sarnath the Doomed, that stood in the land of Mnar when mankind was young, and of Ib, that was carven of grey stone before mankind existed.