Shoegaze is alive and well in the Czech Republic – and MANON MEURT are one of the genre’s most stylish exponents. CzechHarmonies assesses their mesmeric debut, head tilted towards the floor in rapt oblivion…
OK – strictly speaking, MANON MEURT’s debut is not a new release: it came out in April last year. But here at CzechHarmonies we’re making up for lost time, having only started blogging on Czech music last November, thereby missing out on several notable 2014 releases. And this heady, epic six-track offering is as splendid a place to start as any.
Manon Meurt are a four-piece band in thrall to the pedal-laden vibes of 1990s British shoegaze, but who have succeeded in transcending their influences to ferment a fresh and contemporary sound of their own. They hail from a small town called Rakovník that discreetly nestles amongst remote hills stretching west of Prague, and, if you turn your imagination up to eleven, their music could almost be the soundtrack to the atmospheric train journey from deepest, mistiest rural Bohemia into the bright lights and deafening noise of the Czech capital. One of their tracks is even called ‘Glowing Cityscape’.
Sometimes you can hear a well-oiled 100-tonne locomotive coasting regally over a criss-cross of points. Sometimes the train inches ominously up an incline through fog like a wily predator, apprehensive about being exposed by imminent sunlight. Whatever the environment, this album takes you on a perfectly paced trajectory – and, dynamically speaking, Manon Meurt know when to apply the brakes, and when to go full throttle. And the album takes only seconds to work up a head of steam…
1 – To Forget.
Two wiry, wispy, broken chords on guitar…and already we’re flying: the Manon Meurt wall of sound (or one variant thereof) kicks in almost instantaneously. Káťa Elznicová’s and Vojtěch Pejša’s immaculate My-Bloody-Valentine-style dual vocals delicately surf a lean, elongated melody, as Síma Kuchárová’s molten bass guitar strains insistently at the leash without ever quite escaping. Drummer Jirka Bendl then resets the mood by going into train-over-points mode while guitars silently regroup and rebuild the momentum.
2 – Glowing Cityscape.
The album’s most brazenly rhythm-driven track is as glittering an advert for the band’s co-producer Šmity (also the bass player in Luno) as it is for Manon Meurt themselves. The energised, thumping, clock-like drums are crystal-clear in the mix without being too clinical, muscular without being overpowering – and, peeping through the cracks in the percussive grid, strands of guitar drone, moan, mutate and jostle. It is unusual for a three-chord song with such an uncomplicated vocal tune (this time, only Káťa Elznicová is singing) to sound so creatively ebullient. But this does.
3 – ’94
This is the album’s sacred inner sanctum, a majestically unfolding supernova, and a masterclass in how to slowly ratchet up the tension, then gently extinguish it. A distant jangle of muted broken chords slowly builds and builds, drops back to base, rebuilds and rebuilds, the drums kick in, the tension steps up another level, and just when you think there’s no level left to step up to, it finds that too – before ebbing away into the ether. Elznicová’s vocal melody is so simple and endlessly repeated it should in theory get boring, but in practice draws you in like a moth to the flame. A true masterpiece.
4 – Until You Can
It takes some nerve to follow ”94′ with an equally slow offering, but somehow ‘Until You Can’ is not overshadowed by its predecessor. It noodles and throbs imperceptibly, seemingly indefinitely, then abruptly swings and swishes into life like a foreboding monster languidly but authoritatively marking out its territory, all cymbals, flanged distortion and distilled, echoey vocals. It may have the same tempo as ”94′, but the end result could hardly be more different.
5 – In these Eyes
The penultimate track sees the band upping the tempo and breathing new life into the old loud/quiet/loud/quiet song structure, with Elznicová regularly re-adjusting her vocal intensity accordingly. Drums undulate industriously like a passenger express weaving in and out of tunnels, while Pejša’s guitar alternates between searing chords and faintly traced semi-melodies. ‘In These Eyes’ is buttressed by probably the simplest bassline in the world (no fancy histrionics required), though a subtle change in the chord sequence towards the end adds a delicate twist.
6 – Blue Bird
This album’s physical release was vinyl only, and if Manon Meurt were aiming to end both sides of the disc with a slow motion explosion, they have succeeded spectacularly. ‘Blue Bird’ matches ”94′ for cathartic drama, though here the ratcheted tension takes hold more suddenly. My one reservation, initially, was that perhaps this final track peaked too early, meaning that the subsequent bluster outweighed the emotional impact towards the close…but even this solitary doubt is already receding with repeated listens.
When I first heard this album I was hit right between the eyes on every track. But I also wondered if the repetitive element to the music might leave me bored within a few listens. That this has not happened, is down to several factors: the judicious use of a smorgasbord of effects pedals without relying too much on any one effect; inventive percussive rhythms; periodic embellishments and ornamentations that are not always noticeable first time, but lie in wait to be discovered; and, last but not least, Káťa Elznicová’s intoxicatingly addictive vocals, which suggest even more emotional riches yet to be tapped on future albums.
When a band self-identifies as shoegaze, there is always a tendency for the listener to play ‘spot the 90s influences’. You might well detect My Bloody Valentine in there (whom Manon Meurt supported when they played Prague’s Divadlo Archa in June 2013), as well as hints of early Lush, Ride, Slowdive and Pale Saints. But importantly, by far the biggest and most identifiable ingredient is…Manon Meurt themselves. My only real criticism of their debut album is that it is a mere half an hour long, leaving me gagging for more as ‘Blue Bird’ dies away and spirals down into the abyss.
Last week LENKA DUSILOVÁ & BAROMANTIKA played their first ever UK gig, a year after the multi-award-winning singer made her solo debut in London – and it’s no surprise that Bohemia’s classiest acoustic-electronic experimental band – and their charismatic frontwoman – are already winning British hearts. Here’s why…
“I’d never heard of you or your band before last night, but I was totally blown away! Amazing musicians, amazing songs! Very inspiring. Thank you!”
Not my words (though I too was blown away, amazed and inspired), but the words – posted on Lenka Dusilová’s Facebook page the morning after the night before – of a British convert to the magical soundworld of one of the Czech Republic’s most electrifying singers and performers and her elite quartet of silver-fingered maestros. That newly-won UK fan is certainly not the first to succumb. And he certainly won’t be the last…
Of course, if you have already had the pleasure of experiencing Lenka Dusilová’s devastatingly expressive, emotionally rich voice, and Baromantika’s unique brand of left-field acoustic-electronic sonic alchemy (even if only virtually via the internet) you will have known that the band’s inaugural British concert – made possible by support from Mama and the Czech Centre London, who also promoted Dusilová’s first ever UK solo concert at London’s Highbury Garage a year ago – was never going to be anything but a swirling, towering success…as far as the performance itself was concerned.
But would Hipsterville, London N1, actually get it? Anyone with two discerning, functioning ears to rub together can see and hear that Lenka Dusilová & Baromantika are more than good enough for Britain – notwithstanding that Dusilová’s vocals are mainly in Czech, her English is limited, and her minimalist between-song banter makes few linguistic concessions towards the UK natives beyond the words “We hope you understand us”.
But is Britain good enough for LD&B? Would the smart set that frequents Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen actually be smart enough to listen outside the box and give these exotic strangers from the banks of the Vltava the respect and acclaim they deserve? As the band launched into their mesmeric, eclectic set circa 10pm, we were perhaps an hour away from knowing the answer.
Before the band fired up their instruments, the singer took off her sweatshirt to reveal a sleeveless white top sporting the motto ‘Grey is the new black’. Which, whatever her motivation, could be interpreted as hilariously ironic, not only because there is nothing remotely grey about either Baromantika’s music or Lenka Dusilová’s charismatic stage presence, but also because this fiercely individualistic creative artist is in no way, shape or form a slave to glib fashion directives, either sartorially or musically.
For those lucky enough to have already discovered the wonders of Baromantika, there were a few surprises tonight, the first of which became apparent before the band had even played a note of music…
Surprise No 1: Enforced personnel reshuffle…
Besides Lenka Dusilová herself, Baromantika had, until recently, four permanent members: Beata Hlavenková and Viliam Béreš (both keyboards), Martin Novák (drums), and Patrick Karpentski (bass/guitar/programming). Karpentski is now a floating member, having also assumed bass/guitar duties for Albert Černý’s new band Lake Malawi. In the event of a clash between the two bands’ live schedules, new recruit Matěj Belko replaces Karpentski for Baromantika’s live shows. This we already knew. The question was, as Černý’s exquisite dreampop combo had a gig in Karlovy Vary the night after Baromantika’s London show, would we be seeing Karpentski or Belko tonight in Hoxton?
Imagine therefore my raised eyebrow when both Patrick Karpentski and Matěj Belko took to the stage, with Belko assuming keyboard duties… and Viliam Béreš nowhere to be seen.
While there was no formal interview with the band tonight, I gleaned from Patrick post-gig that Viliam Béreš had had to withdraw for health reasons (get well soon, Viliam). And Patrick would be having to get up at four in the morning to fly back to the Czech Republic for Lake Malawi’s Karlovy Vary gig. Ouch!
Surprise No 2: An unlikely starter…
I would never have had ‘Epitaph’ (the penultimate track on Baromantika’s latest album ‘V hodině smrti’) down as a set-opener, but it worked: Hlavenková’s muted, pulsing piano chords and Dusilová’s hushed vocals combined to shame the chattering audience into reverential silence; then other instruments converged and built to an orchestral crescendo, itself the cusp of a taut instrumental workout where harmony and dissonance vied doggedly for supremacy. Hipsterville was generally stopping what it was doing, looking stagewards and giving these central European dark horses their undivided attention. One-nil to Baromantika.
‘Epitaph’, and the slow-and-spiky ‘Tětiva’ which followed, were two of seven tracks from the most recent Baromantika album, released last September, being aired tonight. The other five numbers in the set (not counting encores) were from the band’s 2011 debut, a lush soundscape where, as a listener, you are plunged slow-motion into a dreamworld in which, one moment, you are drifting through a garden of bittersweet remembrance (‘Baromantická’), the next, you are enveloped by the infinite depths of the ocean (‘Brother’), before eventually being hammered by ebulliently expansive rock rhythms and earsplitting dubstep stylings (‘Valerie’).
Surprise No 3: ‘Czech dumplings’ can be people as well as food…
A few years back, in a Czech web article, Lenka Dusilová described herself as a ‘český knedlík’. Literally, this means ‘Czech dumpling’. Czech dumplings are one of the country’s quintessential foodstuffs: down-to-earth, unpretentious – and proudly Czech. But the phrase ‘český knedlík’ is also used to describe Czech people with comparable attributes.
What Dusilová was essentially saying was that, however successful she might be in the music industry, she still sees herself as a simple Czech homegirl keeping in touch with her roots, rather than some international jetsetting prima donna. And what was a nice touch, when describing herself and the band to the Hoxton crowd, was that she translated the phrase literally into English: “We are Czech dumplings.” If that had been true literally instead of merely figuratively, the entire band would have been eaten alive on the spot – in the nicest possible way of course…
Surprise No 4: Wot, no Justin Lavash?
Although the band performed ‘Brother’ – co-written by long-time Baromantika guest vocalist and Prague-resident Brit Justin Lavash – the man himself was conspicuous by his absence. Apparently it was too expensive to fly Lavash over just for one song – even on home soil. Instead, Martin Novák assumed the singing-drummer role, accompanying Lenka Dusilová with an impressively assured rendition. And if you thought Matěj Belko acquitted himself very well in the coda supplementing Beata Hlavenková’s liquid evocations of subaquatic currents with his own shrill splashes of pianistic colour, he positively excelled himself stepping into Viliam Béreš’s shoes on the achingly romantic piano solo in ‘Ricardo’.
Surprise No 5: Wot, no ‘Smiluje’?
It goes without saying that when a band release their second studio album, some tracks from the first album will inevitably disappear from the live set to make room for the new stuff. But…’Smiluje’? And ‘Wspomnienie’? Two of the most potent weapons from Baromantika’s live arsenal have been unexpectedly dropped from the set.
The deselection of ‘Smiluje’ was all the more surprising, not just because of its enormous emotional impact (it is the glowing, glistening jewel at the heart of the ‘Live at Cafe v Lese’ CD/DVD, released in 2013), but also because, in hindsight, Lenka Dusilová has led us a merry dance by uploading to Facebook an informal promotional parody video (-of-the-video) of ‘Smiluje’ in anticipation of this eagerly awaited gig, in which she chants ‘Londýn! Londýn!’ over the usual ‘Call me! Call me!’ chorus. Then she brings her band to ‘Londýn’ – and doesn’t even perform the original. Shame. Now, would Baromantika still have enough firepower up their sleeves to win the battle of Hoxton? Of course they would…
‘Takafei’, the lead single off ‘V hodině smrti’, rolled along so effortlessly you felt you were being freewheeled away from fear and darkness to a land of sunshine and candy-floss where Everything Is Going To Be Just Fine. Not even Dusilová’s only vocal error of the night (a minor lyrics-out-of-sequence moment from which she promptly recovered) could negate this image. And then, once the oceanic majesty of ‘Brother’ had been navigated, Baromantika, never a band to play it safe, just had to drag us all – without even a break for applause – into the aural armageddon that is ‘Duszo Moja’. Dusilová’s anguished Polish-language soliloquy of lost love and choked-up desolation set us on edge for the ensuing blizzard of frazzled electronics that syphoned the very fibre of our being up to the ceiling, then back down with a series of thuds.
Surprise No 6: Dancing to a 7/8 rhythm is not straighforward…
And the fresh ammunition just continued reigning down, this time in the form of ‘Indiánky’, where the winner of seven Anděl Awards (the Czech Brits, if you will) was in her element looping her vocals ad infinitum, wordlessly wittering, then crooning, then whooping, then soaring and finally screaming to a tribal beat that turns out to be not quite as danceable as it first sounds. I have to say it was fun watching punters trying to boogie in 7/8 time, suddenly having to reconfigure their swaying hips every other bar. This also applied to ‘Mrazy’ (another of several Baromantika songs featuring a 7/8 rhythm – is seven Lenka Dusilová’s lucky number or something?), and ‘Ricardo’, which is even more off-the-wall in its beat count. ‘Ptáci’ almost felt like light relief, sandwiched as it was between ‘Valerie’ and ‘Baromantická’, both of which channelled coruscating dream-rock energy through Hoxton’s hippest venue. Unfortunately the technical gremlins now had their little moment in the limelight during the affecting intro to ‘Baromantická’, as the normally unflappable Dusilová was momentarily visibly perturbed by a couple of deafening crackles that gatecrashed the PA system. Earlier, she had fought a running battle with an excess of dry ice, repeatedly batting it away with her right hand. But Dusilová has always been a coper, and the gremlins have got nothing on her, or her high-voltage creativity…
Surprise No 7: Abandonment guilt is a merry topic, apparently…
Lenka Dusilová’s fetching array of effects boxes obviously includes a sarcasm pedal, as she then introduced the set-closing ‘Dvanáctá’ as “a happy song!” on the strength of the rollicking drum prologue. It is not a happy song. Lyrically, it is a somewhat fraught number, with an allegorical feel, about a lone seafarer struggling with choppy waters and abandonment guilt, and generally dying inside. Sure, Baromantika’s music may be consistently intense, intermittently austere, and occasionally harrowing, but its creators are no dour troupe of sourpusses. Minutes after the end of their triumphant set (to which they added, by way of encores, ‘Noni Jam’ and ‘Pro Tebe’, two old standards from the Lenka Dusilová solo back catalogue), the band emerged to mingle with a gaggle of Czech mates and freshly-snared UK fans, held court with great humility, signed some CD sleeves, and were generally lovely. One fan appeared to be hitting on keyboardist Beata Hlavenková, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is married to guitarist Patrick Karpentski, whom she eventually introduced to him as her husband, with undisguised glee.
Surprise No 8: In the Czech Republic they too drive on the left, apparently…
All smiles in the end, though. And there is generally no shortage of humour in the Baromantika camp, as evidenced not just by the amount of laughter going on post-gig, not just by some of the mildly daft pics and videos uploaded to Lenka Dusilová’s Facebook page over the past couple of years, but also pre-gig by their road manager Miroslav Helcl’s gently satirical Twitter post (in Czech) on his home country’s motorway etiquette, which translates as: “The UK’s motorways are like ours. Everyone drives on the left. Occasionally someone drives on the right.” He’s obviously never taken the M4 from Slough to Heathrow in the silly season. There, everyone drives on the right. Occasionally someone drives on the left.
Surprise No 9: Wot, no agent?
And so: Lenka Dusilová and her valiant troops win the battle of Hoxton and on the next day fly from London back to Prague with their heads held high, their star rising, and a good two or three hundred giddy hearts wrapped around their little fingers. Yes, Lenka, the punters understood you alright, and not just the sizeable London-resident Czech contingent who shouted “Ještě jednou!” at encore time, but also the Brits who don’t speak a word of Czech. Because (and here comes the cliche) music is an international language, and music this powerful, this soul-searching, this spiritually uplifting, is a language anyone can embrace within minutes.
Britain has now tasted a spoonful of Baromantika-flavoured honey, and soon Britain will want to gorge on the whole jar. When I sounded out the singer post-gig as to what were the chances of a full UK tour in the foreseeable future, Dusilová’s reply was simply a shrug of the shoulders and that wistful four-word phrase: ‘We need an agent.”
Right then. Calling all reputable and savvy UK agents: the Czech Republic’s classiest left-field acoustic-electronic experimental band, and their indomitable frontwoman, might have a little job for you…