Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Going Primeval in Poland

Once upon a time I made a sort of pledge to myself that I wasn't interested in techno any more. I only planned to listen to bands that played real music on real instruments. Don't ask me was a long time ago, like before cds, OK? WAY before solo MacBook concerts. Obviously, I'm down with the techno in the 21st century; I love some well done electronics with my world music. It became clear to me while listening to Żywiołak for this review, however, how almost everything I listen to now is electronically enhanced in some way- and their cd Nowa Ex-Tradycja is SO not.

It's not just that there are not a whole lot of effects on the recording (Well, they do like their distortion pedals), and other than one remix, there are not really many beats or samples either. This may sound weird, but in these times this feels somehow clean, as well as the primal and raw feel I imagine they were seeking .

This is a record to let your inner pagan cut loose. It's crazed dancing around the giant flames under the big sky out there on the wild steppes. It's the Old Believers in the mountains where the Teutonic knights didn't quite manage to convert everyone to Catholicism. Hey , there's still some wilderness in Poland.

It's big slabs of guitar, grinding hurdy gurdy, throbbing bass and big drums versus female vocal harmonies that can scream like Hedningarna's wildest songs on Tra or make nice like the most delicate recordings Vartinna ever did. And whoa, these two women, Anucha Piotrowska and Iza Byra have some pipes! (Byra is on maternity leave and Monika Szadkowska is who you'll see in most of their recent YouTubes.)

The tension between restraint and exhuberant excess is well handled. "Ой Ти, Петре, Петре" (I'm translating this as "Oh You , Peter, Peter" with my limited Russian; it's a folk tune from Ukraine) is a aching lament (I think) elegant in its simplicity, the vocals barely augmented by a low background drone and what I think is a willow flute. When the vocal harmonies enter at the very end for just one line, the effect is haunting. This song captures that big open sky sound if nature is huge and unimaginably powerful and human lives are tiny blips.

"Oko Dybuka," in contrast, alternates screamed female and gutteral male vocals with chunky distorted guitars. This video of Dybuka is a little sanitized compared to the album sound; looks like it was filmed in a threatre for aTV show, perhaps. Anyway, it's fun to watch the vocalists get into it, but vids of their club shows are a little wilder.

According to their website, the name "Żywiołak" (Were-Upheaval, Were-Element) has no direct meaning, it's no name of any mythical character. It's just a word-game which is common in contemporary Slavic-type literature. Such words are to be found in book of beasts of Polish issues of RPGs, in poetry of Boleslaw Lesmian , or in artworks of modern generation.

They take on a Polish folk tune which may sound familiar to Warsaw Village Band fans, who called it "Who Is Getting Married" on their 2004 release People's Spring. Żywiołak calls it "Femina" and pulls out the distortion pedal rather than the lighter jews harp treatment WVB went for. An empowering song for all you gals who want to play music, dance and cut down trees (I think) instead of getting tied down. Shortly thereafter, on "Oj Ty Janie Sobótkowy," the hurdy is uncharacteristically restrained and the throbbing bass is replaced by a plucked mandola, leaving plenty of room for the delicate vocals.

It is impossible to ignore the Hedningarna influence, so why try? It's no secret multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Robert Jaworski is a huge fan of our old pals from Sweden and this recording pays homage to that sound. If you love getting primal with your old Hedningarna discs, Nowa Ex-Tradycja breathes new life into the bio-metal / heavy folk genre.

As WVB fiddler Wojtek Krzak said when he received the band's Best Newcomer award from the BBC in 2004 "Beauty and identity is still in the roots." I think this applies to Żywiołak as well. They are mining a deep vein of folklore that still, 20 years after the Iron Curtain came down, is so unknown to the West. They are keeping it real to the Slavic cultural identity, and showcasing an elegant timeless beauty amidst their distortion and noise.

Who knows if these guys will ever cross the pond, but they sure would be fun to get primeval with in a dark sweaty club, no? When I hear back from Poland I'll report about how it might be possible to obtain their discs or downloads over here.

I was pretty excited for doing some of that primeval rockin' after hearing that Swiss Pagan Metal faves Eluveitie were co-headling Paganfest this year, and that the tour included a stop in St. Paul next month. But now Paganfest is still coming, but they're not. I am bummed. See what we're missing?

I was planning to go all rock in my old age and attend Paganfest late into the night just before getting up at 4 a.m. to work the Farmers Market. Without Eluveitie on board, it's probably not that important to me. Here' s the word from their web site.
We are very sorry to announce that we will not be able to make it to this years edition of Paganfest USA after all. We would like to make clear that this was in no way the decision of the band and that we all were looking forward to do this tour a lot. Also we are working on a replacement tour within 2009 where we'll hopefully also be able to play a special showcase featuring songs off our upcoming acoustic release "Evocation I: The Arcane Dominion" (due April 11th). We will be back for sure 'cause you guys truly rock and we did not forget the warm welcome we've received on Paganfest I & Death By Decibels!
There you have it. Let's hope for the two set loud plus acoustic tour of their hurdy/fiddle/gaida- driven metal sound coming through our town this fall!

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