The Lead Review: Tristan Bath On Stara Rzeka’s Zamknęły się oczy ziemi

With the upcoming release of what looks to be the last ever Stara Rzeka album, Tristan Bath looks back through Kuba Ziołek's longterm interaction with the intricacies of the modern physical world

"I prefer the mystic clouds of nostalgia to the real thing, to be honest."

Robert Wyatt (1996)

"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is."

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (1961)

The disconnect between virtual and physical realities has been a prevalent theme in art and philosophy since the first humans closed their eyes, and realised the images don’t necessarily disappear. Even so, it feels of even greater importance to the 21st century human being. Via digital pathways we wander a multitude of astral planes – of our very own making no less – and though largely free from the tyrannical shackles of organised religion, we remain irrevocably interleaved with some non-physical form of existence. Music itself is perhaps more trapped between real and imaginary worlds than any other art form, often manifesting itself merely as vibrations in the air; digitised recordings of recordings of recordings of amplified strings channeled through pickups.

Kuba Ziołek’s choice with Stara Rzeka to examine these themes via the medium of music then, is as odd as it is apt. Speaking to Joseph Burnett for tQ back in 2013, Ziołek explained: "material objects are not the neutral background of our lives, they constitute our world and our thinking of ourselves," and that certainly unlocked some of the mystery behind the patchwork of first Stara Rzeka album Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem, where semblances of soaring black and drone metal, psychedelic folk, and electronic pop all coalesced into something of a drifting album length suite, yet feelings of longing, and sheer brutal reality shone throughout.

So we find ourselves here, at what will purportedly be the last Stara Rzeka album. Ziołek participates in a hefty number of other bands and projects in Poland, often releasing via the excellent Kraków-based Instant Classic label, including the Kapital duo with Rafał Iwański, trancey rock bands Alameda 3 and Alameda 5, and the stellar improvising Innercity Ensemble, so his decision to abandon recording as Stara Rzeka and focus on other projects is perhaps understandable. The fact that this second full length is an outright breathtaking masterpiece tribute to duality and abstract music certainly doesn’t make the news any easier to digest though. (He says he’ll continue Stara Rzeka live, so that’s something). The title – Zamknęły się oczy ziemi – is tough to translate, but seems like it could hardly be more fitting: something along the lines of "The Land Closed its Eyes".

As on that first album, the man works almost entirely alone on this project save a couple of brief guest appearances, allowing Ziołek’s philosophy to directly inform the music, and indeed quite literally how he plays his instrument. The sonic palette on display here is huge – from psychedelic pop tropes, to industrial folk music, metal and free jazz – but he’s still composing largely on his acoustic guitar. Ziołek places the fretboard into a number of unruly open tunings that lead his fingers more than they are led, opening up what he calls "new harmonic opportunities", and becoming submissive to his tactile, and autonomous, wooden instrument. This album’s attempt to rediscover this autonomy of the everyday inanimate objects around us goes deeper and broader than its predecessor. As Ziołek himself put it: "they are not merely the wallpaper". At its core, the physicality of the guitar irrevocably intertwines this album to the physical world, along with all the happy and unhappy accidents that come with it, and between the longer tracks there are several briefer busy-fingered interludes performed acoustic guitars. As such there’s perhaps no clearer musical influence over this album than the work of American primitive guitarist Robbie Basho, who has been name-checked by Ziołek, and sadly passed away in February 1986 aged a mere 45. Basho himself joined the dots between his guitar’s open tunings, and what he called concomitant properties. In an actual mood chart for chords modal tunings published in the first edition of his Seal Of The Blue Lotus album, he described D thus: "Colour: green, Mood: quiet pastoral, Concomitant Properties: Runnymede, Irish meadowlands."

Zamknęły się oczy ziemi opens by drawing something of a line under Stara Rzeka’s first album, which was somewhat defined by its detours into cataclysmic forms of metal. The ten minute opening track, ‘nie zbliżaj się do ognia’ (Do Not Go Near the Fire’) was supposedly inspired by Moondog’s latter day two-part composition ‘Fujiyama’, yet begins with three minutes of the blackest metal before melting into a pulsing mess of static drones, kick beats and synths. In turn they give way to several tracks of plaited acoustic guitars, filling in for the droning viola da gambas and koto plucks on Moondog’s ‘Fujiyama – 2’. Next comes a pair of lilting songs built around the acoustic guitar, ‘w sierpniową noc’ ("In the August night") and ‘małe świerki’ ("Small spruces"), both of which overflow with dreamy lethargy as Ziołek’s voice intones angelically, while the addition of trumpet from Innercity Ensemble’s Wojciech Jachna elevates the latter track to mystical new heights.

The body of the album lies in its longer pieces though, and the thirteen minute excursion into slow moving raga rock on ‘czarna woda’ ("Black Water") rests in an echo chamber of zen, blending wordless vocals, tinkling bells and distant synths with some wondrous guitar playing. It’s worth noting here how much Ziołek’s guitar playing has developed. It was central to his interview with tQ’s Filip Kalinowski from March last year, stating that "the articulation of the sound is where the lyricism hides. There is no lyricism without articulation". Well Ziołek’s mastered the lyricism of the guitar here, telling Wagnerian epic tales with his noodling during the first two thirds of ‘czarna woda’, before building the piece to a well timed climax and dissolving the electric guitar into a massing storm of hissing noises. The first disc comes to a close with ‘BHMTH (czyli historia z wujkiem Albertem)’ ("The Story Of Uncle Albert"), where wash of electric guitar and synthetic noise plays out beneath a propulsive groove of acoustic guitar and drum machine sounds, ultimately climaxing with Ziołek’s voice speaking in Polish via megaphone over a cacophonous finale.

In addition to the influences of Moondog and Robbie Basho, Stara Rzeka nods to both Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and Pharoah Sanders’ Jewel Of Thought in relation to the centrepiece of disc two, the 20 minute ‘w szopie gdzie były oczy’ (approximately ‘In the Shed Where the Eyes Were’). Both Ayler and Sanders are interesting choices considering this music’s dedication to granting inanimate objects their autonomy. Ayler used stiff plastic reeds to achieve his harsh sound, while Pharoah Sanders at times almost destroyed his sax blowing so brashly through it to achieve multiphonic sounds. Besides their commitment to blasting physical constraints to pieces wherever possible, Ayler, Sanders, and Stara Rzeka all see the same pathways between universes – physical, imaginary, spiritual – as lying in the proverbial mouthpieces of their instruments. As such Ziołek even picks up a woodwind instrument (I’m not sure if it’s a sax or a clarinet) and parps out freeform over the central raga like section of the 20-minute ‘w szopie gdzie były oczy’, which sails through a multitude of chapters, from the opening surreal sound montage right through to the grinding synthesisers and massive electric guitar lines at its distant finish line. A brief three minute acoustic guitar instrumental follows and closes the album, called ‘Mitylena’ after the capital of Lesbos, where Aristotle once lived – a philosopher implicitly subservient to the realness of reality. The wonderfully elliptic piece circles its own tale, lifting and falling, adding sixths and dropping fifths, practically guiding Ziołek’s fingers around whatever counter-intuitive tuning it’s in.

Our connection with the physical real world is definitely in something of a crisis. Highly personalised digital and social media is creating falsified safety in our own personalised bubbles, and the world seems smaller. It isn’t though. Our true surroundings remain only what we can see, feel, touch and taste. Speaking to tQ in March last year, Ziołek stated: "it’s important to record our own feelings and our own perception of this reality", and that "music is created as a direct response to the reality and the objects that surround you. You can’t do anything about this. You are surrounded by the objects coming from a particular environment. So the music is steeped in this environment". Zamknęły się oczy ziemi soaks up the spirit of the objects surrounding Ziołek, and of the environment he inhabits. He controls it too though. Ziołek’s got a gifted hand of a musical craftsman, and Zamknęły się oczy ziemi is his Sistine chapel. It’s a vast, dense masterwork, and every minute’s worth pouring over. The true uniqueness of humankind is in our ability to shape the universe for better or for worse – and all the land can do, is close its eyes.

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