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Inner Ear: Czech Music For October Reviewed by Jakub Knera
Jakub Knera , October 4th, 2022 08:33

In the fourth part of his report on the contemporary music of Eastern and Central Europe, Jakub Knera digs into the Czech Republic's experimental and avant garde music scene and finds a creative community alive with psychedelic sounds

Irena & Vojtěch Havlovi, photo by Libor Galia

Recently on Facebook, my friend posted a still from The Gray Man’s tram chase scene featuring Ryan Gosling in the streets of Prague. He wrote that he would love for such a stunt scene to be replicated in the capital of our own country, Poland. From our perspective, it seems that we envy the Czech Republic, its popularity earned by the so-called ‘Czech sense of humour’ and its famous film productions. As I’m writing this, there is a growing buzz around MeetFactory, a Prague art gallery I’ve heard about for years, and it seems that the hype can’t get higher than that. It remains to be seen if The Museum Of Contemporary Art in Warsaw, due to open in 2024, will spark just as much excitement. On the other hand, Netflix has just opened its headquarters in Warsaw for CEE countries, so let’s call it one all.

What I find interesting when it comes to this column is not only the presence of music from Central and Eastern Europe, but also the relationships between different scenes. Undoubtedly, it seems we know our neighbours best. I live a stone’s throw from the city of Sopot, which has been hosting the International Sopot Song Contest (formerly called Interwizje) since the 1970s. Among the stars who performed at the event were Czech musicians like Karel Gott and Helena Vondráčková, whose names have been etched in my memory since my teenage years, yet I was never so much into Czech music until I found today’s experimental underground.

There is the great Stoned to Death Records, for instance, which was explored in detail for tQ by Miloš Hroch in May. Then, there are the fascinating electronic experiments of labels such Gin & Platonic, Genot Centre, which has gained world-wide attention, or Unizone, who helped Ukraine create the charity 4UA compilation, which serves as an extraordinary overview of the most interesting local artists. I should also mention Punctuum, which is both a phenomenal music label and a concert venue.

The Czech music scene is a constellation consisting of stars with outstanding body of work – such as Ursula Sereghy, Oliver Torr, or Petr Vrba, who mix different ideas and aesthetics. Vrba, for example, is a fascinating case study in how starting from free jazz, one can evolve into many directions and discover new musical aesthetics, all the while remarkably progressing in their field.

Sometimes the Polish and Czech undergrounds meet each other. One of the most noteworthy examples is the Neighbours project carried out by Robert Chmielewski from Firlej Club in Wrocław. It numerous countries involved numerous countries, and brought together musicians from different scenes for collaborations that often took unexpected paths.

While choosing recordings to be featured in this column, I reject any genre filters. However, of all the countries Inner Ear has focussed on so far, this one seems most coherent. From psychedelic, drone, or guitar forms to minimalism, multi-layered improvisations, and finally, electronic bursts of pulse, I feel that they all share openness and love for psychedelia, regardless of its specific definition.

Tomáš Niesner – Bečvou
(Warm Winters Ltd)

When recording the album Bečvou, Tomáš Niesner was inspired by the environmental disaster that befell the river of the same name, which he has been connected with since childhood. His dreamlike album, based on the delicate sound of acoustic guitar, drone-like passages generated on a modular synthesiser, and field recordings of, of course, the river, is not just an ode to the place but music full of timeless sound. Spacey, electronic sounds are brilliantly counterpointed by the recordings of nature, and the heaviness is balanced by subtle guitar chords. Niesner avoids pathos and opts for rather subtle nuances, imaginative arrangements, and a dramatically constructed lyrical story.

Irena & Vojtěch Havlovi – Saving One Who Was Dead / Little Crusader

Irena and Vojtěch Havlovi have been making music for several decades, and last year drew renewed attention to their work with a collection of works from the mid-1980s onwards titled Melodies In The Sand. This record, Saving One Who Was Dead / Little Crusader, documents their effort to create a soundtrack for the director Václav Kadrnka. They had lots of ideas for this album but ended up with a reduced number of instruments: viola da gamba, piano, and organ. The duo's austerity creates a skilfully crafted dialogue with silence, and the album resonates acoustically (as it was recorded in a church in Milan) and emotionally with the listener. The result is a collection of sounds that is simple but extremely poignant, whether they resort to minimalism, all-encompassing organ, or the pure sound of a piano.

Gurun Gurun – Uzu Oto
(Buh Records)

Gurun Gurun is known for the dreamlike, impressionistic mood of their music. Surrounded by wires on stage, the band looks rather inconspicuous compared to the music they play, which triggers the imagination with built-up electronic and acoustic compositions intertwined with improvisation. Gurun Gurun’s music resembles a soundtrack to an imaginary film, a collage in which spontaneous decisions result in the creation of multi-layered, cinematic narratives, somewhat reminiscent of the aesthetic of Nikolaienko or Piotr Kurek. There is a lot happening at once, but despite the multiplicity of means, the music is neither overwhelming, nor boring.

Stanislav Abrahám – Obzory
(Blue Lizard)

Stanislav Abrahám creates sound installations, radio art, as well as music for theatre and dance performances. In his solo projects, however, he explores ambient or post-club music. Obzory is not as complex as Forces, released two years ago, but that 18-minute composition, which develops gradually from atmospheric sound to jittery bass forms, never quite follows a danceable direction. Instead, it outlines individual motifs, deconstructed one by one with an unexpected transition in the 13th minute. This record shows how Abrahám, when dealing with something more closed and complex than a traditional album form, can cleverly develop and transform his ideas.

The Mond – Future Trash
(Stoned To Death)

Petr Vrba is one of the most interesting Czech improvisers who contributes to many projects. I first saw him at the Konfrontationen in Nickelsdorf, and later on, we met during the UA/PL Meetings project. The Mond is his Czech-Finnish-American trio, whose new seven inch release is as intense as it is succinct, which shows that condensed improvisation often gives the best results. The trio goes beyond the acoustic, using keyboards, synthesiser, and Vrba’s electrified trumpet. The effect is immersive and ecstatic, but also boldly reveals a fresh perspective on free improv. The Mond only ever releases singles – this is the fifth seven-inch for Stoned To Death– and so far each of them has been a hit.

lobbyboy&saab900turbo – Macocha

Although I rarely listen to rap, lobbyboy&saab900turbo captured my attention due to the feminist subject matter they approach, including domestic violence and harassment. Translations of their lyrics are available on Bandcamp. The whole piece, a demented electronic and rhythmic narrative, is merely 10 minutes long. Less is more, it seems, as this intense and dense rap serves as an interesting platform for experimentation in both sound and lyrics, delving into the darkness of chauvinism and violence in society.

Palmovka – Sleep Deep
(NEXT Festival Records)

Lucia Udvardyova is a journalist, co-founder of the Easterndaze project, the creator of the Baba Vanga label, and recently became an interviewer for the SHAPE Platform. She also creates music, or in this case, collects it – her new album is a live jam recorded, as she puts it, “across the bedrooms and independent spaces of Central-East Europe”. The linearity of the music develops into a looped form that grows minute by minute into new musical directions, weaving into a trance-like piece that includes radio recordings, ambient structures and even shovelling bass-heavy parts. The end result sounds like contemporary road music, an electronic landscape that collects the sonic artifacts of a journey in a sort of a pulse pattern and becomes a kind of time machine, a sonic note enclosed in an electronic-club capsule.

Filip Misek – Unbelievable Friendship

Filip Misek's second solo album is a peculiar conglomeration of contemporary electronics and the sounds of classical instruments. The musician's production and compositional approach to the arrangements draws from contemporary music, using numerous juxtapositions as well as contrasting acoustic and synthetic sounds. Although the album has the flavour of a film soundtrack, each track has the potential for song-like forms which are deconstructed over time. There are interesting moments in which vocals are brought to the fore that add a human element but also balance out the intensity. By combining so many elements, Misek presents a display of extraordinary erudition, which results in slick, succinct, and suspenseful music.

Tomáš Hrubiš – Prismatic

The piano is a constant in Tomáš Hrubiš' music, but on his third album, he focuses on the sound of the organ, with which his family has been associated for generations. The musician attempts to sever its connection to sacred and choral music by putting it in a different context. The monumental sound of the organ is accompanied by shimmering, minimalist melodies, and sometimes a delicate layer of Martin Čech's percussion, which reveals a different timbre and sound. At the same time, he is relatively far from the microtonal approach for which Kali Malone or Ellen Arkbro are known. Hrubiš alters between classic choral parts, rough drones, and post-rock raptures, hiding the instruments among dense forms, or breaking off in a way reminiscent of Shogun Kunitoki.

Dva – OST Attentat 1942 / Svoboda 1945: Liberation
(Charles Games)

Jan Kratochvíl and Bárbora Ungerová have been experimenting as a duo for many years, whether recording full-fledged albums or, recently, collaborating with game developers. Their new release is an example of the latter – it features themes from the war games Attentat 1942 and Svoboda 1945: Liberation and unreleased tracks that are evocative expansions of the themes explored in those productions. The short forms sound rather like impressions, but their complexity convincingly demonstrates the imagination of the musicians with field recordings, rhythmic swells, or a minimalist clarinet crescendo. DVA brilliantly combines the elements of contemporary sounds with folk music. The way they spin brass motifs or choral chants is a great example of how to tell a personal and local story without pathos – something that we in Poland could learn from.