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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Ihor Tsymbrovsky's Come Angel
Jakub Knera , March 18th, 2022 13:54

Jakub Knera takes a deep dive into an album of ballads recorded by an enigmatic Ukrainian musician, now undergoing a timely reissue

While Kyiv currently appears to be the centre of events in Ukraine, Lviv remains in its shadow, fortunately. There are many differences between the two cities: the history, the way the population has changed over the years, the influence of neighbouring countries and also its architecture. It's easy to sense it when you're standing on the largest street in the capital, Khreshchatyk, that was built in the socialist classicist style – on the streets of downtown Lviv you can feel more as if you were somewhere in Krakow or Lisbon's Bairro Alto. At the time of the Partitions, the city, under the Austrian rule, was part of Galicia; its entire history shows several centuries of being on the borderline of cultures and artistic worlds. After the war, during the Soviet period, the culture there was deeply underground, the gradual decay intertwined with an increase in creative freedom – before that, independent music was hard to come by, everything was advertised by word of mouth; you had to know how to find it.

The turn of the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the flourishing of the Ukrainian scene. Classical composer Valentina Goncharova experimented with music, in the 1990s Svitlana Nianio – who a decade earlier performed with Tsukor Bila Smert (‘sugar white death’ in English) – released her first albums. The new music scene of Kharkiv and Kyiv was growing in strength, which was documented by the compilation Novaya Scena: Underground From Ukraine! and the Kyiv Rock Club hosted bands like Ivanov Down, Banita Baida, and Biocord, while festivals like Chorna Rada, Chervona Ruta and Nova Scena in Kharkiv essential additions to the music map. Some claim the growth came after the opening of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, others pinpointing the origin point to a Sonic Youth concert in Kyiv in 1989.

In terms of publishing, the musical underground was supported by Koka Records, a Polish label founded by Vlodko Nakonechny, a Ukrainian living in Przemyśl. This is where other projects by musicians from the Cukor band came out: Tamila Mazur explored industrial and noise in Sheik Hi-Fi, Svitlana Nianio released Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy, which has been reissued three times in recent years. The catalogue was completed by, among others, Kollezhskij Asessor and Foa Hoka. The label's contribution was unusual; it would be valuable if today the whole archive could be found on a platform such as Bandcamp. Sonic artefacts from the day are being rediscovered slowly.

One such artefact is Come Angel recorded in 1995 by the then young pianist Ihor Tsymbrovsky. It has just been released for the first time on vinyl and CD by Infinite Fog Productions. But let's stay in the 1990s for a moment. Lviv avoided drastic war damage to such an extent that in 1997 its city centre was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. The most famous figures of the local scene were mainstream stars like Barbara, Taras Chubay and Viktor Morozov. Tsymbrovsky was a decade younger than these musicians and almost unknown in his hometown. In the 1970s, he took his first steps in the Dudarik choir where he developed his falsetto singing style, as if his vocal cords had never fully warped during his teenage years. He arranged his musical ideas, but they never saw the light of day. The demos reached local promoters, who started to invite him to play concerts. He played his first one in 1987 at the Forestry Institute, which used to be a Jesuit church. Where better could the Come Angel album find itself than in such a sacral place? Then, years later, came further proposals of concerts in other Ukrainian cities, then Poland, and finally West Germany.

The resultant tour was the reason to record an album in a professional studio and release it on cassette. Tsymbrovsky was enlisted by Vitaliy Bardetsky, a local promoter and journalist, to Lviv’s GalVax Studio in 1995. They recorded everything in one day, 100% live. The ingredients are simple, an Estonian piano, his voice and, on title track, an organ. There were only a hundred copies, which sold out quickly, leaving the feeling of Tsymbrovsky being a spectral presence, albeit one who would become legendary in the Ukrainian underground.

The first thing that attracts attention is the grain of Tsymbrovsky's voice. Sometimes he resembles Arthur Russel, Marc Almond or Jónsi from Sigur Rós. When the cassette was released, one of the journalists called him "Farinelli from Lviv". The musician accompanies himself on the piano with smear of reverb added, which creates a slightly artificial, but also unreal, atmosphere. The eight chamber pieces have a long, progressive form. One lasts only three minutes, the others are much longer, around six to eight minutes. Tsymbrovsky sings his own lyrics on two tracks while the rest is Ukrainian poetry: futurist Mykhailo Semenko’s writings from the 1930s, and poems by Mykola Vorobyov, one of the leaders of the artistic underground of the 1970s and the founder of the Kyiv School Of Poetry.

Tsymbrovsky plays unhurriedly. Apart from singing lyrics, he finds space for vocal improvisations (‘Roses To A Poet’), and sometimes he expands his vocal range (‘To be’). He sounds like Young Werther lost between searching for love and the meaning of life (‘Wondering heart’), dwelling upon his own mortality (‘By The Sea’) and lyrical memories of love (‘Beatrice’). Everything is like the lonely cry of an outsider artist, but this is tempered by occasional surreal lyrical themes. The title track is something of a fairy tale, a queer parable about an androgyne. It begins with the sound of an organ and keyboards, the clicking of which is reminiscent of a lyre; they are joined by a vocal improvisation. It is the equivalent of a neofolk, drone synth ballad played in steady glissando and the music is served by the enigmatic lyrics: "Come to me, my Angel/ I will see what sex you are/ Will I go into the cavity/ Or will I drink the ripe fruit of the oil". The song is interrupted by a screeching wail, and at the end, after several minutes of mantric chord exchanges, you can hear the refrain: "You with a mark on your lips/ I am your shadow – your wings/ Androgyne in black blood/ sharpens the clarity of coral". The narrative progression of the song and its dizzying poetry when combined with Tsymbrovsky's unique and sometimes gender-erasing delivery, sounds very contemporary to modern ears and suggests that the artist may have found this music an arena in which to air concepts that couldn't comfortably expressed elsewhere.

Tsymbrovsky was, of course, a pre-internet musician. His material was reissued partially by a German label Offen Music, which published only three tracks from Come Angel in 2016. The Ukrainian artist, who now works in architectural design, took this as an excuse to arrange concerts, although very few of them actually took place, so for many of us, we can only really talk about him only through the perspective of this, his only album. Now, in 2022, his music is being reissued exactly as it was on the original cassette including a bonus composition ‘Brilliant Small Poetry’ with vocals that resemble bird calls. The song is a result of his tour in the second half of the 90s, when he visited Gorzów Wielkopolski and recorded a track for the Music The World Does Not See compilation with other artists such as Svitlana Nianio and Księżyc. In fact, that title is a good summary of Tsymbrovsky's work as part of eastern Europe’s musical history. While the eyes of the world are turned towards Ukraine and a Russian label has just released his album, we sincerely hope the world will see his music, and listen to it intently.