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.