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Stara Rzeka - Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem

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Artist: Stara Rzeka

Album: Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem

Label: Instant Classic

Review date: Aug. 30, 2013

When examined with an ungenerous ear, the career of Nico can look like the work of the ultimate hanger on, her reputation dangling from a thread of songs on the perpetual list-topping Velvet Underground debut. As an assigned foil for Lou Reed and John Cale’s leaps toward the future, Nico’s brief role in the band brought a creak of the old world to the terrible children of the Factory.

Then there’s her legendary run-ins with Federico, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison, followed by her long, slow crumble into methadone nothingness. Her solo records don’t provide quick payoffs. For someone who walked among core architects of rock, their flair for catchy provocation didn’t rub off. Nico’s offish delivery can make the albums seem like something she did because she didn’t know what else to do. They’re inward-facing creations, and it takes some work to feel their urgency. She doesn’t expel her demons, so much as swirl them around the wine glass, offering up a sip. For someone so close to the core, she stayed an outsider.

I’m going on about Nico, because it’s one of the easier points of reference to make with Stara Rzeka’s Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem, a dizzying hour-long record. Climaxing with a cover of Nico’s "My Only Child," it’s a suite of acoustic, electric and electronic themes weighted with the same feel of an outsider caught on the inside, a middle-European dragging their personal and cultural memories into a foreign form. Stara Rzeka is all the work of Kuba Ziólek, who’s involved with a variety of bent-noise psych projects in Poland, and he weaves together styles that couldn’t be more au courant: krautrock, fingerpicked acoustic, black metal. But also like Nico, the fashionableness is a side effect. The record feels completely internal.

Naming the project for a small town (literally, Old River) and plunking a traditional cut paper design on the cover, Ziólek presents the idea of a retreat before the music even starts. The opening section starts as an acoustic ramble, with electronics whirring in the distance. Over its long running time, the steel string arpeggios give way to synthesizer arpeggios without overlapping or making for any drastic shifts, either. He finds sympathy between the mechanically precise and the scratching strings. From there, things turn heavy, with "Tej nocy/Broń nas od złego" a straight up tar-storm of black metal, blown out guitars mimicking chiming bells falling in a burning steeple.

As far as the genre exploration goes, nothing repeats. The blast-beat mayhem ends up emphasizing the meditative focus, rather than disrupting it. There aren’t hooks or verses here, even as it borrows from genres that are song-based. The middle of the album is mostly atmosphere — fogs of feedback and long whistling organ notes. Melodic figures die away before becoming familiar. Male and female voices materialize, speaking in the distance, but they’re too buried to be sure of the language.

When Nico’s hymn-like "My Only Child" shows up after such a long run of indefinite sounds, it seems cuttingly clear, even though the voice sounds as if it was recorded on cassette in a chapel. The cover is as bare and desperate as the original — maybe less personal, but just as wrenching. Gradually subsumed by drones, the track returns to focus as a stoner dirge, with majestic smashing chords, before shifting again to trembling dulcimer tones. Those final sounds are as close as the record gets to matching the Slavic traditionalism of the cover art. Ziólek’s retreat to the old river is abstract, but his plan still comes across.

If you wanted to be ungenerous toward Cień chmury, it would be easy to say the mish-mash of styles aim for the clouds without landing anywhere. But what’s stunning about the record is how cohesive it feels, and how fast the hour-long collage marches by when half of it lacks percussion. These sounds are possessed with urgency, even while they’re splintered and muddy as an Anselm Keifer painting. Ziólek is a cosmopolitain loner — he knows more about you than you can figure out about him.

By Ben Donnelly

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