- Will Altrock fans be satisfied?
If you’re like me and happened to catch the video release of Five-Storey Ensemble playing “Not That City,” you were probably just as excited as I was for the album by prospect of the album by the same name. Formerly known as Rational Diet, the Belarus-based chamber ensemble essentially delivers a striking blend of 20th century classical, folk, and archaic musical traditions. Originally beginning as work for a soundtrack to the experimental play Bondman’s Wings, Not That City offers concise and passionate composition that will challenge your ears while driving home dark and evocative atmospheres.
While Not That City is mostly an instrumental album, there are several tracks that make use of vocals and really give the album some extra human depth. “The Incommunication” is the first of these, a track which instantly brings us into the theater with its recitative-like vocal lines interspersed with distinct instrumental motifs. My personal favorite of the vocal pieces, however, is “Yesterday Dormant,” a song that fantastically employs changes in time and tempo that really characterize the parts of the different voices that are singing. Each singer is basically assigned a distinct instrumental feel, the male character with his bouncing rhythms and folky flavor and the female with slow droning chords. The repetition of these sections gives a distinct dialogue-like feel that is extremely satisfying. Couple that with a nightmarishly intense instrumental eruption in the middle of the piece and we’ve got a great number that is catchy and maintains the band’s unique flavor.
Now, I know that this probably has nothing to do with anything, but if you are a fan of Camel, you might just grin when you hear “The Protector.” I don’t know why, but there was just something very snowgoosey about “The Protector” that filled me with glee. Furthermore, it’s just a fantastic piece that was a tad unpredictable. Talk about mood swings – we go from something super playful to a gorgeously mournful middle section that would only have been made more perfect if the melody had been played on erhu.
Then there are two pieces that I particularly like to pair together because of their brutal mood: “Fear-dream” and “The Unpainted.” As far as “Fear-dream” goes, the title couldn’t have been more perfect, as its haunting melodies are accentuated by the harsh tone on the strings that deliver everything from attacking tremolos to dark bursts and that high ringing so reminiscent of horror films. “The Unpainted” kicks it off with a dark piano motif followed by some short bursts, at each of which a new instrument or section appears to create dissonant tension before vanishing. This more or less repeats when we suddenly get a lowish drone with a frightening melody appearing on vocals flanked by interjections from the ensemble to maintain the mood. This suddenly bursts into chord changes, at first uplifting, but then quickly morphing into a variety of haunting textures. Instrumental motifs cycle in and out as the parts become more lively before dying back down a bit. In the end, “The Unpainted” ends up picking it up more or less where it started, this time with multiple instruments playing the heck out of the opening motif for a strong close.
While “Not That City” is most definitely a good album all the way through, I definitely wouldn’t say they front-loaded it with the best tracks. At least from where I’m sitting, I found the back end of the album to be particularly fascinating. “Amid the Smoke and Different Questions” gives us a memorable delivery of solo vocals reminiscent of medieval sacred music traditions, very diatonic in nature, juxtaposed with a radically modern and dissonant instrumental arrangement that magically blends what feels like an easily sensed chord progression hitting up against something very shocking. I almost feel gleefully uneasy as my mind easily sings the vocal melody despite all of the bizarreness going on around it. Then, the joke appears; the ensemble suddenly interjects a baroque piece in the background as it launches us into the chaotic musings of woodwind soloing, percussion, and what sounds sort of like a guitar with broken strings trying to tune.
After so much chaos the band brings it back down to earth with the title track, “Not That City,” a piece that starts of with some nice accordion work before transitioning into a pretty bit of harpsichord as the rest of the ensemble dives in for the main melody. This is a very rhythmic piece that has strong folky leanings while exhibiting the dark and avant-garde underlying tones that are so natural for Five-Storey Ensemble. After a number of twists, turns, and lush melodies, the verdict on this one is that it’s a brilliant piece, worthy of the album title and employing all means necessary to show what this Belarus band does best. In the end, I think fans of RIO, avant-garde, and ambitious prog will certainly look forward to a new album from Five-Storey Ensemble.