Tracklist: Dream of the Black Horse (5.56) Page of Swords (3.27) Purple Haze (4.54) Stand By Your Man (4.15) Song to a Sparrow (2.53) April (3.20) Nightfall (3.18) Forty-seven (2.57) Fate (6.54)

Fancy a trip into the unknown? Does the sound of a band that mixes Prog with traditional Vietnamese music, with a regular filling of rock, soul and blues appeal? Then take a peep behind the bamboo curtain to see what's happening in the world of Verdun.

The project is the brainchild of Neal Barnard, who previous played with post-new wave Pop Maru, who mutated into the rock/jazz/baroque, Quartet. His compositions here incorporate odd meters by the bucket-load, foreign languages, electronica, ethereal vocals, crushing rhythms and hard-driven guitars.

The vocals come from Martha Roebuck and Ngoc Hoàng. Martha has a very serene and light touch that tends to float over - totally unaware of the often-unstable music below. Ngoc, who came from Vietnam with her film producer father in 1987, adds a distinctive touch to, I believe, three songs: Nightfall, April, and Dream of the Black Horse. Drummer Mike Stetina drives complex and changing rhythms, seamlessly diving into 7/4, 11/4, and other meters most bands would never have even heard of. Viet Nguyen plays an electronic version of the dàn tranh, the Vietnamese instrument that closely resembles a Japanese koto, as well as the traditional dàn beu, dàn cò, and dàn nguyet. There's a clever use of the sax and cello from guest musicians, whilst Jon Best's bass drives the music along, or holds it back, depending on the need.

The opening song is where all these ideas come together perfectly. Dream of a Black Horse is based on a Vietnamese folk song that tells of a bridegroom readying his horse and carriage to bring his bride home. In Verdun's Dream..., the black horse rebels, casting off bit and bell, and bringing his own love home. Musically it's brilliant. The mixture of hard but spare guitar, punchy drums, traditional Vietnamese instruments and electronica gives the whole track a real drive and energy - yet held in check by Martha and Ngoc's beautiful soaring vocals. Page of Swords is a lullaby sung by a mother to child that shows off Martha's voice to further effect as does the tender Song To A Sparrow - very Clannad, with just voice, guitar and cello.

The three short tracks which follow are based around instrumental ideas, utilising more odd meters with some spoken word and electronic samples. The closing track takes similar ingredients to the opening one, but comes up with a different taste - less of the Vietnamese influences and rather spoilt by a rather repetitive, march-like drum pattern.

The choice to do a cover version of Purple Haze is a debatable one. Clearly Barnard has tried to give it a totally fresh sound with odd meters (7/4 at one stage), Martha's very bluesy vocals and by taking the whole thing down to around a third of the speed of the original. It could work on some songs but when the original version is as well known as this, it's very hard to listen to without comparing to the original - and to these ears it just sound yuk! Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man is also given the Verdun treatment. This is also slowed down from the original but this time with a male voice and a broken, bluesy guitar that works much better.

Truly fresh and innovative music is hard to find and there's enough here to spark a hundred and one possible follow-ups. It's not totally fulfilling. Tracks 2 and 5-8 are a bit light in terms of not really developing some nice ideas a bit further; the version of Purple Haze is regrettable and unnecessary and clocking in at under 40 minutes, the whole thing is a rather on the short side. I'd like to see Verdun develop the combination of influences found on the first track across a full album - something I think would be very rewarding. You can make up your own minds with samples of every track on the band's website. As I said at the beginning - well worth a peep.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Andy Read