Here in the UK, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to have predicted that whoever won X-Factor would also clinch the Christmas No 1 spot. But who are the winners in the Czech Republic’s Yuletide countdown? Prague’s RADIO 1 has the lowdown…
AND THE CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE ON RADIO 1 IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC IS…
…’Happy Idiot’ by TV ON THE RADIO…
…and ‘Antikvariát’ by TATA BOJS.
Question: How can there be two Christmas Number 1’s on Radio 1? Was it a tie?
Answer: No. Quite simply, there are two charts on Radio 1:
The song that earned them the Christmas No 1 spot, ‘Antikvariát‘, lyrically speaking, is an everyday story of a secondhand record store owner describing his quaint little shop, its discreet location, and its obscure vinyl contents. The video, however, tells a much more chilling tale: that of a creepy secondhand video store owner who eyes up female customers before… well, I won’t spoil it for you.
In Britain it’s all Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, A Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols, ‘Walking In The Air’, and, er, ‘Mistletoe And Wine’. But how have the Czechs celebrated Christmas musically over the years? Here’s how…
KAREL GOTT: Alžbětinská Serenáda(Elizabethan Serenade)
For the past half-century Christmas in Bohemia would not have been the same without Karel Gott, arguably the nation’s best loved crooner, who seems to have recorded more Christmas songs than the rest of the Czech record industry put together. Here, Ronald Binge’s genteel light music classic ‘Elizabethan Serenade’ is given a Czech makeover in 1975. No need for translation – the video pretty much apes the lyrics.
BAMBINI DI PRAGA: Adeste Fideles(O Come All Ye Faithful)
Bambini di Praga are sadly no more, but for nearly four decades from 1973 they were one Prague’s proudest cultural exports – a globetrotting children’s choir of exceptional quality, which in the late 80s included a 13-year-old Lenka Dusilová in its ranks. The purity of their voices on this version of ‘Adeste Fideles’ from 1982 is out of this world.
A girl gets a teddy bear for Christmas from a far-off land. Awwww, sounds lovely…and then you watch the video. WTF? White powder cascading out of teddy’s ripped-open tummy? Shady looking Colombians? Crucifixion scenes? The Czech Republic’s top rock band dressed as priests? There are internet forums devoted to analysing and interpreting both the song and the video. Some said ‘Medvídek’, released in 1998, glamourised drug trafficking. Judge for yourself.
JIŘÍ KORN & PAVLA FORSTOVÁ: To k Vánocům patří (This belongs to Christmas)
Now this is much safer listening…unless you are a hardcore John Lennon fan. There is a trend in Bohemia for taking famous UK or US songs and revamping them with Czech lyrics, which often have little or no connection with the original. In this sanitised rewrite of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, Lennon’s edgy lyrics have been replaced with a Czech-list of all the delightful things that make Christmas what it is.
JAKUB JAN RYBA: Česká Mše Vánoční (Czech Christmas Mass)
Jan Jakub Ryba, one of Bohemia’s leading classical composers, penned this mass in 1796 and Česká Televize augmented his celebratory pastoral music with this endearing, if now a little dated, animation in 1966.
Now brace yourselves. From Janek Ledecký’s 2012 musical ‘Vánoční Zázrak’ (Christmas Miracle) comes this offering seemingly inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ video, but with even more hot babes, mostly in skimpy Santa outfits. BUT BE WARNED: AT 2:29 SANTA POLEDANCES IN HIS UNDERPANTS. No, really. CzechHarmonies is not liable for any psychological trauma this may cause you.
HANA ZAGOROVÁ: Zima, zima, zima, zima(Cold, cold, cold, cold)
Restoring a bit of modesty to proceedings, Hana Zagorová and her cohorts are thoroughly togged up for this light-hearted subzero outdoor romp from 1976. There’s nothing like a bit of slapstick in a Christmas video, and the sound effects when the marching musicians fall arse over tit in the snow could be straight off ‘You’ve Been Framed’.
HRADIŠT’AN & SPIRITUÁL QVINTET: Panáček spí(Puer natus in Betlehem)
In 1997 Česká Televize brought us very different Christmas fare from the Ryba Mass animation of 1966 – a joint live concert by two of the country’s foremost folk acts. And together, Hradišt’an and Spirituál Qvintet imbue this 14th century classic with a rare and special contemporary zest.
The Czech people have a proud history of giving short shrift to invading forces, but even they were powerless to resist the Smurfs – or Šmoulové, as they are known in Bohemia – as they slayed the entire western world with their little blue faces, Phrygian caps and helium voices. This raved-up Czech language version of ‘Jingle Bells’ from 2011 will probably mash your brain.
We end on a high note with a genuinely gorgeous Christmas tune from 2010, the accompanying video being resplendent with a feast of snow, a shaggy dog, and a Czech actress-cum-popstar with a winning smile. This will warm the cockles of your heart like mulled wine.
For two decades LENKA DUSILOVÁ, one of the Czech Republic’s most engaging and influential recording artists, has consistently enthralled and absorbed audiences with a brilliantly unpredictable career trajectory…and with her current band BAROMANTIKA she has raised the bar yet again…
Some recording artists are impossible to describe to those who have not heard them. Some bands simply will not be squeezed into any of the existing woefully inadequate pigeonholes. And Lenka Dusilová & Baromantika are a classic example on both counts – indefinable and uncategorisable.
Dusilová herself has played numerous defining roles in the Czech Republic’s post-Velvet-Revolution musical narrative – from hollering teenage banshee on Sluníčko‘s 1994 album to swaggering indie chick with Lucie and Pusa in the mid-nineties, to highly individualistic solo artist through the early-to-mid 2000s…and that’s just the ‘rock’ stuff.
But Dusilová has regularly sighed for fresh musical worlds to conquer, betraying a Bowie-like antipathy to standing in one spot for too long, and has guested on an unfeasibly wide variety of other people’s projects. And teaming up with jazz-trained pianist Beata Hlavenková – a formidable creative talent in her own right – to record 2008’s Eternal Seekers album with Clarinet Factory, was a watershed moment in both their careers.
Formed in 2010 as the next incarnation of Dusilová’s fruitful creative partnership with Hlavenková, Baromantika released their debut studio album to huge critical acclaim in 2011: a uniquely dazzling kaleidoscope of colour, drama, experimentalism and atmosphere, the likes of which neither the Czechs, nor the world, had ever previously witnessed.
A live CD/DVD followed in 2013 (‘Live at Cafe v Lese‘, recorded the previous year in one of Prague’s hippest underground venues), proving emphatically that the eleven songs on the debut album were made for live performance, where theybristle majestically.
And so to ‘V Hodině Smrti‘, Baromantika’s second studio album and third release overall. Lenka Dusilová has described death, change and transformation as the album’s dominant themes (the title itself translates as ‘In the hour of death’). The sheer concentration of ideas that permeate its 47 minutes rewards – indeed, demands – repeated listening. So far I’ve played the album maybe sixty times, and only now do I finally feel qualified to pronounce judgment.
The album ploughs epic furrows between feather-light acoustic impressionism and a swirling electronic vortex; between spacious, distant soundscapes and dense, craggy rhythms; between fragrant harmony and troubled dissonance; between noise and silence; between light and dark; and between despair and hope.
Dusilová also showcases her linguistic versatility, singing two songs in English, one in Polish and one in Slovakian in addition to the six songs in her native Czech. There is also one track with wordless vocals (Indiánky) and an instrumental piece (Monotronka) largely created and produced by the singer herself.
CzechHarmonies now guides you through what is surely a contender for Album Of The Year at the next Anděl Awards…
1: INDIÁNKY – ‘V Hodině Smrti’ is bookended by two of the album’s most rhythmically assertive tracks, and on ‘Indiánky’, Baromantika draw you into their soundworld with an enticingly atmospheric ambient intro. Then come Lenka Dusilová’s wordless vocals, and – augmented by percussion that intensifies in stages – her trademark use of loop pedals to create layer upon layer of harmony and counterpoint. Things die down, then rise again, phoenix-like, before finally evaporating into the ether.
2: TĚTIVA – Featuring an enigmatic (but eminently singable) Czech text by Martin Kyšperský ostensibly about a wood fire burning in the corner of the garden, ‘Tětiva’ pulses along slowly but assuredly, its spiky keyboard motifs and softly picked guitar perched atop quietly grumbling blocks of bass. And above it all, Dusilová croons not just an exquisitely angular melody, but also the refractive backing vocals and harmonies which enrich it.
3: RICARDO – One of Baromantika’s many creative hallmarks is to have refined the subtle art of making irregular time signatures seem perfectly normal. And if you don’t tell anyone that ‘Ricardo’ at times boasts confoundingly fluctuating numbers of beats to the bar, I won’t tell anyone either. You’d hardly notice, so uncontrived are both the vocal figurations (again, voicing an intriguingly nebulous Kyšperský text), the gently chugging guitar and the astutely-timed bass notes. And listen out for a classically sumptuous piano interlude from Viliam Bereš, the band’s other keyboard player, in the song’s twilight.
4: MAYDAY – A moving, nakedly candid minor-key ballad featuring British singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Justin Lavash, who guests here for the third time on a Baromantika release. The lyrics to ‘Mayday’ (sung in English and penned by Lavash himself) address a dying relationship, Dusilová’s pleading appeals (‘Tell me how you could say that/ And is there a way back’) alternating with Lavash’s gravel-voiced responses (‘When love turns to pain/ You know it’s time/ You turn the page/ You draw a line’). And all the while, Dusilová’s deathly-quiet strummed guitar, Bereš’s sparse piano chords and Martin Novák’s insistent, delicately whispering tom-toms speak as eloquently as Lavash’s lyrical resignation.
5: DUSJO MOJA – Dorota Barová’s heart-breaking Polish text is the platform for possibly the album’s most cathartic moment. A spurned lover, voiced with proliferating intensity by Dusilová, laments how she cannot breathe at all and the sun has disappeared behind dark clouds. Then the emotion really ratchets up: ‘Wracaj do mnie duszo moja/ obudź mnie, kaźdy dzień’(‘Come back to me my soul mate/ Wake me up everyday’), whereupon Dusilová goes into wordless mode, soaring like a nightingale…and then…the apocalypse. A blistering tornado of fiery electronics is unleashed, ruthlessly sucking up everything in its path, then crashing it all back down in instalments.
6: TAKAFEI – The perfect antidote to the preceding sonic carnage, the album’s sweetest tune, and the obvious choice for lead single off the album. Driven by Beata Hlavenková’s rolling, twinkling piano chords, ‘Takafei’ trundles along like a lullaby for tired, paranoid ravers. Its addictively tuneful chorus will colonise your memory for eons. Dusilová absolutely nails yet another Kyšperský lyric, in which a clearly frightened individual (who seems unable to distinguish between the moon and a white skull) is reassured that fear is a friend, as it sharpens the eyes. The coda is a treat: the deft clatter of Patrick Karpentski’s programmed synth; a sexy, swooping, looping bassline; and Dusilová’s (and Hlavenková’s) vocal fragments firing off in all directions. Pure bliss.
7: TICHÁ-ČERNÁ – In which the album’s second guest artist, David Koller (Dusilová’s erstwhile bandmate from Lucie and Pusa) takes charge of both drumming duties and Tomáš Tajchner’s bold twelve-verse lyric, with Dusilová intermittently doubling on vocals. The relentless thump of the kick drum is the launchpad for some worldly wordplay, punctuated only by a restless instrumental break, after which the first six verses are seemingly repeated, but with a subtle wordswapping game in action to modify their meaning.
8: MONOTRONKA – It’s contrast time again. ‘Monotronka’, which is predominantly Lenka Dusilová’s own creation, is a wistful soundscape built on languorous marimba-like keyboard riffs, synth chords undulating like a distant siren, and latterly, a mournful, gently twanging guitar tune that is temporarily disrupted, bizarrely, by a sound recording of what appears to be a woman (Dusilová herself?) pottering in the kitchen, having a cup of tea, then exiting through a creaky door. It’s one of the curveballs that makes ‘V Hodině Smrti’ such an inexhausible vault of treasures.
9: ARCHÍV DNÍ – And now we’re going to get really relaxed. With a Slovakian text by Eva Tomkuliaková, ‘Archív Dní’ is a laid-back, jazz-tinged number of the highest order from the fertile mind of Beata Hlavenková, who strokes the piano so tenderly that Dusilová has to be at the top of her game to match that lightness of touch on her own vocal cords. And she passes that test with flying colours. The accompanying synths, bass, drums and trumpet would be more conspicuous by their absence than they are by their presence, proving Hlavenková’s compositional mettle.
10: SNAD JEN – Baromantika’s final vocal guest is singer Dan Bárta, who contributes an aspirational, image-rich lyric to Patrick Karpentski’s zippy, imposing collage of electronics. Bárta splits vocal duties with Dusilová; when their voices combine on the drum’n’bass-infused choruses, they gel beautifully, As on ‘Takafei’, the coda takes the song to another level, with austere synth slabs and harp interjections bolstering the male-female vocal interplay.
11: EPITAPH – The penultimate track sees Ezra Pound’s concise verses concerning the sad, allegedly drink-addled fates of two of ancient China’s historical figures, Fu I and Li Po, interpreted by Dusilová with an understated empathy. Hlavenková’s initially barren minor key piano chords are progressively augmented by an array of droning samples, meandering bass and episodic drumming. ‘Epitaph’ matches ‘Duszo Moja’ and ‘Monotronka’ for stark experimentalism, but with markedly different results.
12: DVANÁCTÁ – The second single off the album, ‘Dvanácta’ (translating simply as ‘Twelfth’) is the most boneshakingly rhythmic track of all, with not one but two percussionists going for broke on this recording. Lyricwise, the protagonist is adrift in a boat, trying to navigate both raging currents and the guilt of having abandoned someone on the shore. ‘Lodička se zakývá/ Něco ve mě umírá…’ (‘The boat is rocking/ Something in me is dying…’), sings Dusilová. Booming bass, and whooshes of harpsichord-like keyboards, push the song – and the album – to an emphatic close.
CONCLUSION: Lenka Dusilová and Baromantika have stuffed ‘V Hodině Smrti’ full-to-bursting with pretty much everything the discerning alternative type could wish for in a cutting-edge left-field album: more contrasts than you can shake a stick at, rarified and sophisticated lyrics, a fearless sense of adventure, the pioneering spirit, a paint chart of aural colour, some hand-over-mouth moments, but also some delicious passages where any apparent sugariness is naturally occurring and not some toxic artificial sweetener. And the album contains, if anything, more than your recommended daily intake of musical vitamins, minerals and protein.
And continuing the nutrition analogy: in the spring of this year Lenka Dusilová became a mother for the first time, and on her Facebook timeline (October 17 to be precise) there is a priceless photo of her baby boy sinking his milk teeth into the CD sleeve of THIS VERY ALBUM. Full marks to Mum for weaning junior onto on the good stuff so young.
‘V HODINĚ SMRTI’ by LENKA DUSILOVÁ & BAROMANTIKA is out now on Supraphon.
LENKA DUSILOVÁ & BAROMANTIKA will be playing their first ever British gig at HOXTON SQUARE BAR & KITCHEN, LONDON N1 6NU, on Thursday 29 January 2015. Click here for advance tickets.
LAKE MALAWI, fronted by ex-Charlie Straight singer Albert Černý, are poised for an invasion of the UK’s airwaves: the Prague/London based indie-dreampop band have just secured airplay on both BBC Radio 2 and Amazing Radio.
Paul Sexton, standing in for Bob Harris on his early Sunday morning Radio 2 show, played the band’s ‘Chinese Trees’ on a playlist that also included Arctic Monkeys, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Who, Pink Floyd and The Beatles.
If you missed it, you can hear Paul Sexton’s Radio 2 show from last Sunday morning here on the BBC website (until Saturday 03 January 2015). He introduces Lake Malawi 1:21:22 into the programme.
Lake Malawi, currently touring the Czech Republic, will be returning to Britain next year to play The Great Escape Festival in Brighton on Sunday 17 May 2015, after which they will be embarking on a small UK tour.
BANDZONE is an invaluable networking website for the Czech Republic’s flourishing music scene – and a great way for punters to discover exciting new groups. CzechHarmonies guides you through the labyrinth – and introduces you to six of the best Czech bands via their Bandzone pages…
Remember the original MySpace from the mid-2000s? When it was the go-to social networking website for new bands looking to grab an industrial-size fanbase? Before MySpace changed hands and the new owners messed with the format? Well BANDZONE looks to be, on many levels, the Czech equivalent of MySpace 1.0.
The strapline ‘Žijeme hudbou’ translates as ‘We live on music’ – and it’s fair to saythat since its inception in 2004 many of today’s high profile bands would have struggled without the attention Bandzone has afforded them.
A websurfing music fan’s paradise, Bandzone acts as a shop window for up-and-coming Czech (and Slovakian) bands as well as long-established acts seeking to connect with a new generation. Just like the original MySpace, Bandzone is very conducive to a fruitful websurfing experience, where you can easily hop from bandpage to bandpage till you discover that fantastic new act you’ve been waiting for all your life, then play through their songs on a simple, user-friendly music player while perusing their blog and tour dates.
There are a few differences from the old MySpace – not least, the apparent absence of options for customising your band’s page into a retina-damaging kaleidoscope of garish designs, since all Bandzone pages seem to have the same uniform black background.
Meanwhile, where the old MySpace pages had that rectangular ‘Friendspace’ enclosure down the right-hand side, Bandzone has three rectangles down the left side: one for ‘Fans’, one for ‘Connected Bands’, and one for ‘Similar Bands’ (even if not connected).
Of course, as the Czech Republic’s population is a mere 10 million, and Slovakia’s population around 5 million, groups on Bandzone are unlikely to have seven-, six- or even five-figure fanbases (as many UK or US based bands used to boast on MySpace). Most have fans in the hundreds or maybe thousands, and it is surprising how much decent music is also produced by acts that have only a few dozen Bandzone fans.
What’s really great about Bandzone for non-Czech speakers is that you don’t have to understand the language to find your way around, as everything is so intuitive.
So what are you waiting for? Here are just six of the Czech Republic’s many outstanding bands, picked at random from Bandzone to get you started…
Based in Prague, Luno are masterful purveyors of measured psychedelic pop with a real emotional pull. Singer Ema Brabcová’s poignant vocals are reminiscent of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler at her very finest.
Three-piece acoustic-psychedelic band with post-rocky guitars supplemented by cello. The music laps about your ears like a Radox bath you have just lowered yourself into…and leaves you feeling just as revitalised.
Stoner rock from southern Bohemia, with a nod to Queens Of The Stone Age and the Raconteurs, and a neat line in looped tensile guitar riffs and mind-bending chord changes. The Pooh, it seems, are named after Winnie-the-Pooh, not that brown stuff your dog left on the pavement. And they’ve certainly found the honey, musically speaking…
More southern Bohemian mayhem – this time featuring extended cavernous slabs of nebulous guitar – the sound of Mogwai crashing into Secret Machines and then exploding all over dystopian suburbia in a haywire alchemical reaction. You can imagine this stuff soundtracking some grim arthouse movie about surviving the apocalypse.
Not all of the above bands are currently active or promoting an album – they were simply randomly picked from amongst the plethora of outstanding acts that the Czech Republic has produced in recent years. If you surf even a tiny fraction of Bandzone’s 37,000+ registered band pages you are bound to discover more treasures.
In Britain there’s BBC Radio 1 for all (well, some of) the latest music. And the Czech Republic has its very own ‘RADIO 1’, broadcasting 24/7 from Prague. CzechHarmonies introduces you to the biggest single Czech radio station dedicated to promoting cutting edge music with an independent spirit.
There’s a Radio 1 in London…and there’s a Radio 1 in Prague. However, there are some important differences between the BBC’s flagship new music station and its Czech namesake.
For starters, Radio 1 (or ‘Radio Jedna‘, as they say in the ČR), is exclusively and constantly geared to innovative, experimental and independently-minded music whereas BBC Radio 1 mainly plays ‘The Interesting Stuff’ at night, reserving the daytime predominantly for ‘The Commercial Stuff’ – including the disposable Simon Cowell-type nonsense.
You could say Radio Jedna is more Huw Stephens and Benji B than Fearne Cotton and Scott Mills, in terms of pushing the creative envelope. And certainly Radio Jedna presenters would rather throw themselves off Charles Bridge into a watery grave than give so much as a second’s airplay to any X-Factor-style crap.
If anything, the Czech Republic’s Radio 1 – an independent radio station and not part of Český Rozhlas, the main Czech broadcasting company – is perhaps closer in spirit to BBC 6 Music, though probably with less 1980s indie on its playlist, and with a wider and more colourful palette of genres.
Although the bulk of the station’s output consists of new, recent, and not-so-recent indie, alternative and generally left-field tracks hosted by a variety of presenters each with their own show, there are also a number of specialist programmes covering fields like electronica, techno, breakbeat, hip-hop, jazz, swing and dancehall.
And those looking to get their teeth into something really substantial can savour the hour-long feature CD Nonstop (Mondays to Fridays, 19:00 Czech time/18:00 UK time), in which a critically acclaimed album from recent times is played in its entirety from start to finish without interruption. Recent airings have included full albums by Vashti Bunyan, Interpol, Kasabian, Aphex Twin and the Ukelele Orchestra Of Great Britain, as well as from the Czech Republic’s own Jan Burian, The Prostitutes, Vypsaná fiXa and Jasná Páka.
You won’t get CDs broadcast nonstop like this on BBC Radio 1…well, apart from very, very occasionally on Zane Lowe’s programme.
‘But what’s in the Czech Radio 1 charts?’ I hear you cry. Depends which charts you mean. There are two: the ‘Hitparáda Radia 1’, and the ‘Velká Sedma’.
The Hitparáda Radia 1 is comprised mainly of successful mainstream alternative/indie/electronic acts, many of them familiar names from the UK and US (including, at time of writing, Lamb, TV On The Radio, Thom Yorke, Submotion Orchestra, the Drums, Cathedrals, Total Science and Royal Blood) – evidence that most of the Czech music-buying public, despite the flourishing of domestic acts since the end of the Communist era in 1989, still look mainly to the West for inspiration.
The Velká Sedma, meanwhile, is a kind of Indie Chart for homegrown Czech (and a few Slovakian) acts that mainly, as yet, don’t have a high enough profile to make the Hitparáda Radia 1, so it is very unusual to see the same names in both charts. ‘Velká Sedma’ translates as ‘The Big Seven’: there were seven songs when the chart started back in the early 90s, but they’ve kept the name despite gradually expanding the chart to 15 places. As I write, No 1 on the Velká Sedma chart is the second single from Lenka Dusilová & Baromantika’s new album ‘V Hodině Smrti’. Other Velká Sedma high flyers currently include Zrní, Monokino Kino, Lanugo, Bad Karma Boy, Kubatko and Tara Fuki. Genrewise, these and other names on the chart encompass everything from atmospheric acoustic dream-pop to indie guitar rock via ambient electronics, reggae-pop, lo-fi folk, punk-country and cello improvisations!
Radio 1 listeners who register with the station’s website can vote (hlasovat) for their favourite tracks, thereby helping to shape the following week’s charts. Currently the Hitparáda Radia 1 is featured during two-hour timeslots on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, while the Velká Sedma chart also gets a couple of two-hour windows, on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
If you’re feeling daunted by the plethora of music emanating from the Czech Republic, or by your inabilty to understand the Czech language, Radio 1 is one good place to start exploring. On both the Hitparáda Radia 1 and the Velká Sedma web pages, clicking on the artists’ names will take you either to the artists’ official websites or to their Facebook/ Twitter/ YouTube/ Soundcloud/ Bandzone etc pages for more information.
Last week Albert Černý, former Charlie Straight frontman, brought his new band Lake Malawi to London for their first ever UK gig. They did not disappoint. CzechHarmonies profiles a transcendent indie-pop act with killer tunes and the world at its feet…
It is not Albert Černý’s first time in Britain, not by a long stretch. But then, if you were Upstairs@Highbury Garage on the evening of Thursday 13 November, you will almost certainly have detected this from the impeccable English accent of the Lake Malawi singer/ guitarist/ frontman/ songwriter-in-chief, as he won over a transfixed audience.
Indeed, if you didn’t know otherwise, you would have no idea that Albert Černý is not from these shores at all, but from a small village near Třinec, a steel town in the demographically nebulous region of Moravia/Silesia, near where the Czech, Slovak and Polish borders intersect, and from where his first band, Charlie Straight, emerged so triumphantly in the late 2000s to win three Anděl Awards (the Czech equivalent of the Brits or Grammies) and mark out a sizeable territorial claim on the Czech Republic’s musical landscape for half a decade.
Keeping quiet about his roots?
The strange thing is this. During Lake Malawi’s ecstatic nine-song set as support act to Nottingham grunge outfit Kagoule, Černý (pronounced ‘Chairny’) proudly informs the audience that “this is our first ever gig in London!”. In fact, he tells us this four times throughout the set, just to make sure it’s sunk in.
Which naturally prompts the question: so where are you from?
But at no point does he inform us of the band’s country of origin. This worries me. I’m here to champion the great music currently emerging from the Czech Republic…and I’m thinking, is this guy deliberately keeping quiet about his roots? If so, why? And will I have to keep quiet too? And how do I do that…writing a blog called CzechHarmonies???
“It’s not that we’re keeping quiet about where we’re from,” explains Černý post-gig, “it’s just that we don’t particularly want to mouth off about it. But if people ask us, of course we’ll tell them. We’re not trying to hide it.
“At the same time, we’re spending about twenty percent of the year over here – our base is in Holloway – and we want to be perceived as being London-based to show people we’re serious about being successful over here.”
Seagulls across the oceans
They’re certainly well on the way to being successful in their homeland. Although they have only one single under their belt (‘Always June’), Lake Malawi have been making some bigwigs sit up and take notice, and this summer secured a prestigious support slot with Thirty Seconds To Mars at Prague’s Tipsport Arena, followed in September by a breathtaking 12-song set at Czech Radio’s Studio 1 in Ostrava, streamed live over the internet. You can see this on YouTube (though the video seems to skip a bit in places). If your weakness is for swirling, perfectly crafted, head-in-the-clouds pop songs that inspire you to hitch a lift with the seagulls across the oceans to find your one true love, it is impossible not to fall for the four-piece band, which also includes Černý’s erstwhile Charlie Straight bandmate Pavel Pilch on drums, as well as Jeroným Šubrt (from Brno-based band Admiral Ackbar) on guitar/bass/keys and Patrick Karpentski (commandeered from Lenka Dusilová’s band Baromantika) on bass/guitar .
And while Černý sings in a uniquely hybrid English regional accent that seems to lie in some parallel universe with direct connections to Camden Market, the music has a quintessentially east-European emotional intensity that envelopes you in its measured rush, whilst also clearly rooted in the 1990s British pop tradition.
So, Albert, where did you learn to speak English so well, and what British music were you listening to at the time?
“I spent a month living in Gravesend, Kent, when I was 16. That’s when I really grasped the English language. At the time I was listening to stuff like Radiohead, Coldplay and Muse.”
And while while Britpop might also have been an inspiration back in his Charlie Straight days, Černý has certainly moved on from such influences: “I was only at primary school when Blur, Pulp and Oasis were at their height.” Bon Iver would be a more recent reference point, influence-wise: indeed, the name of the band comes from the line ‘So it’s storming on the lake’ in the song ‘Calgary’.
Freedom and emotional mobility
All these formative influences ultimately manifest themselves in the structural solidity of Černý’s compositions, if not in their overt sound and style. ‘Day For Finding Someone’, which formed the central nucleus of Lake Malawi’s Highbury Garage set, is a wonderfully accomplished pop dream, but what makes it soar is the astute use of insistent, unwavering atmospheric synth chords to accentuate throbbing bass and plaintive vocals.
And there is no let up in the creative ammunition anywhere else in the set. ‘Young Blood’ cranks up the tempo and the passion for a pulsating declaration of devotion (You could be my Juliet / Young blood in your veins / Age doesn’t matter anyway / Be my shelter from the rain), with strummed acoustic guitar bolstered by pummelling percussion and peppered with wisps of atmospheric electric guitar and a sustained single note on the synth.
On several songs, lyrically speaking, Černý seems to have a thing about birds and oceans as symbols of freedom and emotional mobility, and ‘I Swam The Sea’ is a case in point (I swam the sea / Swam the ocean / I set you free / Like a bird). With its infectiously danceable rhythm and poignantly jangling guitar riff, it’s a potential future hit single, but Lake Malawi are frankly spoilt for potential future hit singles.
The perfect indie-pop song mould
And vying for chartbusting status are ‘Chinese Trees’, which will definitely be the band’s second single at the beginning of December, along with – surely worthy of re-release when the band has gathered some unstoppable momentum – the aforementioned ‘Always June’, sporting that all-important sing-a-long chorus hook with which Černý gets the punters securely wrapped around his little finger. And further evidence of his undeniable stagecraft is the ease with which he persuades the Garage audience to shuffle forward halfway through the set to eliminate that awkward empty gap in front of the stage, not to mention a perfectly timed gymnastic leap from atop the electronic organ situated in front of Pavel’s drum kit. He also embarks on an enthusiastic foray down into the audience as far as the length of his jack lead will permit him.
Albert Černý may be no School of Rock soloing virtuoso on his purple-and-white Stratocaster, but his canny instinct for what you can and can’t pour into the perfect indie-pop song mould, as well as the heart-on-sleeve sincerity with which he tunefully yearns for that elusive personal utopia, is something you can’t teach.
And if you missed Lake Malawi’s Highbury gig, rest assured you’ll get your chance to experience their rarefied brand of euphoria next year, when their debut EP is released. Meantime visit their website http://www.lakemalawimusic.com/ for further announcements.
DG307, one of the most significant acts in Czech counterculture history, are performing this Saturday evening at St Giles Church, Camberwell, London, as part of JazzLive at the Crypt.
Co-founded in 1973 by Plastic People Of The Universe stalwart Mejla Hlavsa and dissident poet Pavel Zajíček, the six-piece outfit are renowned for an uncompromising repertoire that encompasses tight alternative-rock song structures, jazz-influenced improvisation and dissonant, expansive soundscapes as backdrops for Zajíček’s intense, evocative vocal declamations.
The London performance will feature the band’s late 1970´s classics alongside more recent work and will also include excerpts from their setting of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, originally composed and recorded in Camberwell.
Zajíček will be returning to his old stomping ground in south London where he spent much of the 1980s after a period of imprisonment by the authorities in communist Czechoslovakia.
While Zajíček himself became an active participant in Camberwell’s local music scene during this period before returning to his homeland in 1989 to resurrect the band, this will be DG307′s first ever gig in London – as part of the Made In Prague 2014 festival.
Aidan Andrew Dun and Lucie Rejchrtová will be making special guest appearances with the band.
To experience DG307′s arresting performance style, and in particular Pavel Zajíček’s unique onstage presence, you can check out an online video of the band’s 35-minute tour de force “Životy? Nebo bludné kruhy?” (“Lives? Or vicious circles?”) on their Bandzone page here.
Erstwhile Charlie Straight frontman Albert Černý’s new band Lake Malawi just played their first ever UK gig on Thursday the 13th, Upstairs@Highbury Garage, north London. They did not disappoint. Feature to follow shortly. Keep looking!
Over the coming months this blog will feature the cream of the Czech Republic’s current music scene, focussing mainly on indie, alternative, underground and interestingly different acts, some massively successful in their homeland, some just bubbling under…but all with something to say musically to an English-speaking audience. Some even sing in English.
If you’re bored with much of the current scene where you are, be it formulaic college rock, derivative indie-by-numbers or bland stadium fodder, you might like to cast your net wider… to the banks of the Vltava and beyond…
While the bulk of music covered here could loosely be categorised as left-field pop/ rock/ post-rock/ indie/ alternative/ electronica/ underground etc, there will also be some coverage of jazz, classical, and other genres. If it’s good enough and relevant enough, it’s in.
Stand by for gig reviews, album reviews, in-depth articles, Czech music history lessons and some interviews. Plus links to other sites of relevance.
More to follow shortly. See the “About” section for the mission statement…