Xu Fengxia / Luca Niggli Black Lotos

Exotic to be sure, with Fengxia's guzheng and sanxian (Chinese stringed instruments) and vocals, it's surefooted percussionist Niggli who brings out the drama in the duo's music. His dynamic range is impressive, from whisper-soft on "Bell Smell" to thunderous on "Black Lotos." Niggli is a superb accompanist, matching Fengxia's every action with a strikingly apropos reaction. "Fish-Lips and Duck Feet" foregrounds Sanxian shredding but the drums' background action meet it blow for blow without overpowering the delicate instrument. Fengxia's vocals are intense, modulated by lightning-fast vibrato, growls and glitch-y throat catches. Her melodies are firmly rooted in Chinese folk music — simple and compelling. "Ride Over Blue Sky" is one such tune that stretches for 11 minutes without losing its taut, sinewy vigour for a second. It unveils its panoramic scope slowly, taking it down after its forceful melody to barely audible rustles, only to bring it way up to shrieking intensity. For a duo, this twosome have an orchestra's range of dynamics and colours; they make big music. (Intakt)