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…
Dusilová gave her first ever solo concert in London almost exactly a year ago at Highbury Garage. Brief footage from this gig, as well as a short interview with the multi-award-winning Czech recording artist, can be viewed here.
Now a British audience can at last see the full band, which also includes other noted Czech musicians, playing material from ‘V Hodině Smrti’ alongside tracks from the 2011 Baromantika album – plus likely the odd song from Dusilová’s solo career.
‘V Hodině Smrti’ has already spawned two singles, ‘Takafei‘ and ‘Dvanáctá‘ which have both topped the Velká Sedma chart on the Prague-based alternative music station Radio 1.
For a taster of the Baromantika live experience see this performance of ‘Smiluje’, taken from the band’s CD/DVD ‘Live At Cafe v Lese’ released in 2013.
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.
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.