[Reviewed by Psymon Marshall]
Given that it’s only been thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent breaking away of former satellite and client states, this anthology of the explorations of sonic artists from the Balkan region of south-east Europe represents an appropriate opportunity to explore how the influence of Communist (and repressive) Soviet culture created a particular approach to the making of music, particularly in terms of the industrial genre. Back in the early 90s when I ran an industrial music ‘zine I used to get a smattering of releases from Russian acts, and it would be fair to define the parameters of their output tended to be on the harsher, noisier side of the spectrum, in a sense the sound equivalent of Brutalist architecture. Even then I wondered whether this was a reflection of Eastern European culture as we understood it then (given how little the secretive Soviet state would divulge) or whether this was a form of protest against the restrictive regime. Remember too that any music which was seen as a direct criticism of the State, its government, and communist ideology was immediately suppressed as being запрещено (zapreshcheno) or forbidden, which meant that sound artists had to find creative ways around the restrictions in order to express themselves.
This massive selection of tracks, by artists culled from all over the Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania for geography nerds) as well as a number from Greece, totalling 21 pieces of music. I’ve never really thought about it in terms of a country (or in this case a region) having a ‘national’ musical identity before (I am not, btw, talking about nationalism here – thought I should point that out), but when listening to this in the round it’s easily identifiable and can be nailed to the wall as if displaying some new manifesto. Speaking specifically about the ex-Communist satellite countries, it’s immediately apparent that noise is still the predominant mode of expression, harsh drone especially, along with a dark sobriety and doom-laden atmospherics, indicating that the hard edges apparent in Soviet-era industrial has softened little over the post-Soviet decades. Perhaps, on reflection, this isn’t so surprising: the post-communist political and social history of the region hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses in many cases, and I am surmising that there’s still some regional anxiety about what the future holds, seeing that the hoped-for spread of Western-style democracy and ideas has only brought instability in its wake. I get the feeling that there’s still a sense of ‘the old vs the new’ still prevalent in the cultural discourses of these countries. Having said all that, Greece hasn’t exactly had it easy either, in terms of its recent economic woes, so we shouldn’t express surprise at similar modes of musical anxiety emanating from there either.
The above is a necessarily brief overview of a very complex set of conditions, both cultural and political, and all of which impact on the work of sound artists living and creating there. My political education isn’t nuanced enough to comment on it fully, so the rest of this review will be spent doing just that: reviewing what’s on offer here. To prevent this review from getting too much out of hand, I won’t be commenting on every track as I would normally do, instead picking those which I find interesting, representative, or particular highlights. Let me state though that I like ALL the offerings presented here, but this review would definitely become unwieldy should I talk about every track.
I suppose I should start where everything starts: at the very beginning. Cadlag’s mathematically-inclined title for their piece (a way of avoiding having to write it all out again) is a slab of jet-engine doom-ambient noise, simultaneously stifling and suffocating and yet strangely uplifting. It’s as good an introduction as any as to the overall tone of this anthology, and sets the scene for what follows. Koasmos’ ‘Levitate’ is an even darker slice of pulsing, primitive noise and all the more effective for it. The raspy ambient oscillations and fuzzed-out guitar chaos of Ontervjabbit’s ‘Torture Garden’ comes hard on its heels, effectively drilling through one’s brain like one of those multi-toothed tunnel drills used for boring through mountains. But, lest you should imagine that this genre of music is the only thing on offer here, then let me present PureH’s ‘Krun Macula’, a quiet track that tends towards the noise ambient vein, this time sounding like something recorded deep within the tunnel that the previous track has created.
Jeton Hoxha’s magnificently expansive ‘Effect of Living Things’ introduces a more film soundtrack feel to proceedings – and in fact conjured up images of the abandoned spaceship in the original ‘Alien’ film. Vast, unintelligible, unfamiliar, and decidedly unsettling: all these and more best describe the feelings elicited from this piece. Next up is Mørket’s ‘Ghost Territory’, a cavernous subterranean chasm that feels unending and infinite.
Siberian Saga’s ‘Salgaar’ reminds me of tundra and steppe, and mysterious northern shamanic rituals performed around campfires. Throat-singing and bells in combination get me every time – delicious shivers down the spine. Omori’s ‘I Didn’t Realise How Fast it would all Cease to Be’ is a ghostly apparition, flitting between ephemerality and substantiality, flying between tangibility and intangibility, and being graspable and simultaneously elusive. The longest track on the album, ‘Liber Resh’ by Alone in the Hollow Garden, is, for me, the best of the lot. Oriental flavours liberally spice this confection, broadcasting the mysterious and unknown, as well as the darkly dangerous, replete with shades of mythical beasts and faraway lands known only through the garbled tales of travellers. It’s almost like Lovecraft’s ‘The Nameless City’ made three-dimensional through sound, complete with obscuring sandstorms and men huddled in shady, smoke-filled hashish dens.
Marija Sumarac’s experimental rhythmic resonances in the appropriately named ‘Waves’ ebb and flow in time according to some hidden but entirely natural biocycle, which transcends its obvious electronic origins to become something entirely organic in nature. The penultimate track, Nava Spatialis’ ‘Moratile Canopsol Peltinarium’ (couldn’t find a translation for this) is also a naturalistic soundscape, this time of the collapse of civilisations and societies, in all likelihood instigated by the machines we’ve created. Chaos reigns on all sides here. And, finally, on to the last track: adarcah’s ‘omega sixty-three’, and it’s an appropriate piece to end on, I think. A darkly choral effort, woven from otherworldly voices that hover somewhere between light and dark (being both and neither simultaneously), existing in that uncertain space between the angelic and demonic. It speaks of desolation, fractured realities, and the broken psyche of a whole civilisation, a civilisation that won’t be mourned at its passing.
As a brief summary of the state of underground music being currently created by musicians in the Balkan region, it forms a solid narrative that perfectly encapsulates what this music does: reflecting the realities on the ground, mostly the political and social uncertainties still reverberating even three decades after the leash of communism was thrown off. And, for me, this is THE medium in which to express all of those fears and uncertainties, in a way that the written word can’t convey. It also says to me that there is still a lot of work to be done to shape the new societies emerging from the shadows, and it’ll be interesting to see how this will impact on the musicians themselves and the music they’ll be producing in the future. In summation, it’s an impressive exhibition of material that is an essential addition to any collection.
Various Artists – Anthology of Post-Industrial Music from Balkan Region
Unexplained Sounds Group, USG061