Experimental Sounds From Poland: A Rum Music Special

Rory Gibb, Luke Turner and John Doran round up some of the Quietus' favourite Polish experimental records of the year so far, from grinding tectonic plates and noise-blasted techno to jazzy sample collage and creeping dread. Part II to follow soon...

Stara Rzeka – Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem

(Instant Classic)

Stara Rzeka’s album caused so much confusion in the office when it first arrived earlier this year, I don’t think anyone realised quite how good it was initially. The ebb and flow of styles – not just across the length of Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem (whose title means something roughly like "clouds cast shadows across hidden fields") but across each of its six tracks individually – make it hard to pin down. Not that you would want to inhibit such a wonderfully fluid record anyway.

Take, for example, the first track ‘Przebudzenie Boga Wschodu’, which takes the impressionistic and evocative finger picking style of John Fahey’s ‘The Portland Cement Factory At Monolith California’, with sweaty finger scrapes and all to a chiming 12 string, before viscous layers of superheated guitar noise start sliding underneath, and then a sequenced analogue arpeggiator and drum machine slot into place like clockwork. As echo and other effects are applied to the ever-more-cosmic synth burbles, a Hawaiian surf guitar twangs heatedly in the background. And then at around the seven minute mark, the distorted guitars come back in with an overload of synths, and as every needle slips into the red, obeying a kind of Spinal Tap noise maxim – everything noisier than everything else – the necrotic, barely audible BM vocals arrive, lying somewhere between Burzum and Gnaw Their Tongues.

But this isn’t an exercise in ear-boggling sonic perversity stamping the listener into submission, carried out by a masterful auteur, like, for example Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus. All of these sounds belong together naturally. And it is their evocation of nature and sublimity which acts as the glue that binds them. In fact, not only is the listener not left wondering what the hell is going on but, once acclimatisation has occurred, the thought is actually: "Why hasn’t anyone done this before now?"

Stara Rzeka is the one man musical project of Jakub ‘Kuba’ Ziołek and means "old river" (which is also the name of a small village in the Bory Tucholskie region of Poland) in his native tongue. Ziołek is a key player in the groups Alameda 3, Ed Wood, Innercity Ensemble, Hokei, T’ien Lai and Kapital, but it is here that his vision really shines. The reason all these strands of music fit together so well is that he relies solely on sounds, instruments and styles that have been used successfully to represent the sublimity of nature in the most deanthropomorphised and raw of ways, from drone metal, neofolk, cold wave and cosmic synths to space rock, weird folk, krautrock and black metal. It also deterritorialises the spaces round current forward-looking rock, metal, noise and ambient acts, and searches out new ground past their outer perimeters, from Swans, to Sunn O))), to Pinkunoizu, to Ben Frost, to Holden, to Guardian Alien.

The name "old river" is particularly apt for this music, because it suggests that the listener is in a boat, carried along by a strong current unseen under a still surface, past an unfamiliar and rapidly shifting landscape on the banks at either side. The boat is centred and still, despite moving at speed through an almost-alien place that has been hidden from human view for a very long time.

Ziołek has said that he is interested in the combination of nature and technology, but the images that this statement conjures up are often harsh and digital too. In fact the scene that this music often brings to my mind is that of Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo (as the would be rubber baron and opera lover Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald), sailing implacably down the Pachitea River in Peru on the deck of the Molly Aida. Dressed in a perfect white suit, he plays the music of Enrico Caruso from a gramophone player into the dense walls of jungle that stand on each bank. John Doran

Robert Piotrowicz – Lincoln Sea

(Musica Genera)

Technical problems aside, Robert Piotrowicz’s performance at the recent inaugural edition of Unsound London was among the most memorable of the weekend, as much as anything else by virtue of its extreme physicality. Co-head of the Musica Genera label alongside Anna Zaradny (who also played at Unsound London, with a set of monolithic, penetrating electronic noise on the festival’s opening night), he’s known for predominantly working with guitar and modular synth, a pairing wielded to dramatic effect on this year’s quietly intense When Snakeboy Is Dying album, which twisted from periods of near-silence to sour, shredding dissonance. His set at Unsound, however, was entirely modular-based, far louder and much more punishing, blasting the audience with irradiated peals of dissonant synth whine, thick washes of bass and towering, almost church organ-esque tones, each repeatedly cutting across one another’s trajectory to give the impression of being gradually immersed in a ceaselessly shifting, restless grey ocean, its currents buffeting your body this way and that.

New EP Lincoln Sea, self-released on limited vinyl with rather fetching artwork, captures that aspect of Piotrowicz across two twenty-minute long sides. It’s sullen and brutal stuff, reminding me by turns of some of Nate Young’s psyche-shredding Regressions material, Rashad Becker’s imaginary folk musics, some of the PAN label’s other psychoacoustic missives and even Tim Hecker (albeit lacking the latter’s overly grandiose air), but pleasingly subtle: in among these slabs of ear-splitting dissonance are moments of wondrous resolution – nine minutes into the first side, for example, a great billowing updraft of muffled sub-bass heaves into earshot like tectonic plates grinding against one another, shaking you to the core. Rory Gibb

kIRk – Zła Krew

Speaking To The Quietus earlier this year, kIRk described the intensity of the process that went into recording Zła Krew thus: "It was more like a shared state of mind. I had a feeling that this session was like playing with the devil. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we signed the contract." This feeling of darkness, threat and dread extends throughout this six track album… though not from the first moment. First track ‘Do rozpuku’ features confident scratching, samples and the repeated assertion "I am". Just two minutes into the second, title track, however, all that can be heard is a static hiss, as if your ears are straining two hard in a dark cellar, a terrified mangled human scream, and sad, wandering trumpets before a repeated, gloomy bass comes in. This juxtaposition of light and dark, brass and electronic noise characterisises this rather startling album, a strange and unsettling collision of (to give you some British reference point) Chris & Cosey’s ambient threat as heard on the Collectiv series of compilations, The Bug, and perhaps Teeth Of The Sea re-interpreting central European folk while suffering from a catastrophic hangover. ‘Dżuma’, in particular just goes round and round relentlessly, like a niggling doubt that won’t go away. Luke Turner

Kucharczyk – Chest EP

(Mik! Musik)

Mik! Musik label boss and artistic polyglot Wojciech Kucharczyk was something of an entry point for me into Poland’s experimental and electronic music world. I first came across him performing at Katowice’s OFF Festival a few years ago as part of his reformed group Molr Drammaz, a long-running and well-respected presence in the Polish musical underground. The intricacies of the show escape me now, but at the time I wrote that it was "based largely around percussion – as if the name, pronounced ‘more drummers’, didn’t make that obvious enough – rhythms from several drummers interlock and fall apart again, shifting in and out of phase while singer Asi Mina roams the stage". (There’s a collection of that band’s music from over the years available via Mik! here). Later the same year he opened Krakow’s Unsound Festival in his solo guise The Complainer, a surreal performance based around sci-fi tinged covers of British indie and synth-pop standards, including The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ and Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’, all delivered while "wielding a fluoro lamp at the crowd like a lightsabre".

Founded in the mid-90s, Mik! Musik has a sizeable archive of music to wrap your ears around, much of it available for a very reasonable price on the label’s Bandcamp, and much of which seems to have involved the prolific Kucharczyk in some way or other. He describes this new eleven-track free-to-download collection, Chest, as "some outtakes from the album which will be out in February on Monotype, and some freshly touched tracks from Bank Account transmissions, transfers even" – but in truth there’s enough material here to pretty much qualify for album status: static-addled techno sketches, glitchy songs, and some beguilingly peculiar little creations that feel as much like museum pieces on display as living music, like ’13 & Scheme’, which seems to run like clockwork, all springs, cogs and mechanical detritus jutting out in odd directions. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Song’ turns similar textural tools to the service of an odd but sweet little electro-pop number, burying his voice deep into the mix so the words become unintelligible. You can download the whole thing for free from here (link on the far left of the page; a physical copy will follow, in a ludicrously limited run of 33 copies), which as an initial introduction to this mercurial artist’s work seems rather a good deal. Rory Gibb

Bionular – Erik


‘Do not adjust your set’ might be a useful piece of advice while listening to Bionular’s fifteen track album of "100% sound recycling". This is a record of pulses, drones, crackles, skips, pops, whirrs, minor chords, hissing and static, giving an air of general melancholia, even at times sounding like the CD is skipping, albeit rather melodiously. (It’s not – I checked for toast). Bionular – aka Sebastian Banaszczyk – uses as raw material French composer Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, first published in 1888, later arranged by Claude Debussey and, in 1981, covered by Gary Numan. It might take a little while to get used to, what with the disruption and strange noises that come in and out of the sleepy, stretched and reversed notes, but after a while, like an old record, that’s what gives this strange album its personality. For it’s not all spatial sadness either, the sound of a hangover inside Brian Eno’s splendid dome after he’s had a terrible sherry-fuelled row with William Basinski. ‘ST. 007’ wobbles with playful eccentricity, suggesting wooden round-bottomed children’s dolls coming to life in the workshop, ‘ST. 013’ is sci-fi round the edges. Bionular’s website gives a clue to the intent here, with a quote from Jean Cocteau, thus: "…The smallest work by Satie is small in the way that a keyhole is small. Everything changes when you put your eye to it.” If the intent was to use Satie’s original material to make a glorious new vision in monochrome, then this is an unqualified success. – Luke Turner

Derek Piotr – Raj


Derek Piotr is a young Polish-born sound artist, who now lives in New England in the US. He may well be an accomplished electroacoustic musician who focuses primarily on vocal manipulation, has interned under Meredith Monk and has been nominated for the by the jury for Prix Ars Electronica in Digital Musics, but this doesn’t actually stop his third solo record from being, well, banging. In times gone by, this record – his third solo album – would have been lumped under the catch-all title IDM (although it should be pointed out that in times gone by no-one was making records exactly like this). He manipulates vocal inputs masterfully, using techniques that are reminiscent of those used by Holly Herndon, Amon Tobin (on the recent ISAM album), Bjork, prime Prefuse 73 and Katie Gately. Elsewhere he gleefully ignores the high and low art divide while mixing and matching a berserk number of styles. Where else would you find something that feels as comfortable referencing percussive effects that sound like Coil, RP Boo, Tackhead, Gold Panda, Autechre, Mouse On Mars, Revolting Cocks and, perhaps unavoidably, Burial? Experimental electronic ‘dance’ music is very rarely this simultaneously exciting, unpredictable and enjoyable. John Doran


(Mik! Musik)

Pawel Pesel / Mangrove Mangrave / RSS B0YS – #SECRETS #20042013

(Mik! Musik)

Mik! Musik has been on a great run of form since Kucharczyk rebooted label activities last year (it had originally ceased operations in 2008) – a quick flick through the top few rows of the label’s Bandcamp catalogue turns up quite a few gems. RSS B0YS’ strange and prickly TH T00TH 0F TH FTR is one of the best, a nine-track suite of spatially bizarre, noise-blasted techno-not-techno, whose woody textures and dull percussive thuds sound hand-played on hollowed out logs, hand-crafted instruments and crumbling brick walls. Which is almost certainly the intention – the duo are anonymous, claiming that "they met, as legend has it, in Benin" and that they’re influenced by landscapes "from African deserts to European dancefloors". Whether or not these travelers’ tales are true, they’ve used these fictions as the basis for some striking music, which often hints towards other similar developments in dancefloor-centred noise coming from the US and Europe while operating at a level of remove from any prevailing current club music narratives. Lacking the overt abrasion and hard-edged physicality of the L.I.E.S set or Vatican Shadow, the duo’s rhythms are appealingly clunky, almost willfully primitivist, and pair extreme, mind-numbing repetition with moments of almost off-hand, off-key beauty.

‘M00N00SR00M00 D0WN’ crunches along for ten minutes with all the obstinate single-mindedness of Factory Floor at their live best, gradually tattooing its metallic groove and sandy bass blasts into the surface contours of your brain until you’re left with no other option but to flail along with it, blank-eyed. But elsewhere chinks of light are allowed in – ‘Fog’ spirals further still into the Chain Reaction echo chamber, its kicks possessing the contradictory property of appearing to explode outward and collapse in upon themselves simultaneously, and ‘HYHYTS R00N’ (nope, I can’t quite figure out those track titles either) turns rhythmic disarray into meditative loveliness with a glittering drone that pours through the mix like sand through an hourglass. Moments of ostensible club-readiness are more often eschewed in favour of terse and sinister exercises in atmosphere-building, with the tension dialing upwards like a ratchet being turned until it either dissipates or resolves into something truly uncomfortable: the otherwise low-key ‘EX0RCSM0S 0F TH G0LD00N BLL’, for example, is punctuated by several sudden huge, echo-ridden clangs that startle the nerves, in a manner that reminds me of that final, terrifying shock collision of sound and imagery that brings David Lynch’s Inland Empire to a close.

RSS B0YS crop up again on #SECRETS #20042013, a two-tracker that’s part of Mik!’s Even More Secret series – where newcomers and established names put out their work anonymously – and was released to coincide with this year’s Record Store Day. It features the duo in collaboration with two other artists, of whom again next to nothing is known – Paweł Pesel, whose Ekscentryzm album is another current favourite, and Mangrove Mangrave. I’ve had this one on near-continual repeat in recent months, so it’s well recommended as a bit of a starting point for delving further into Mik!’s catalogue. ‘CAUTS C00TS’, with Mangrove Mangrave, is techno slowed and sludged-up to delirious extents, with fine strands of melody stretched out into impressionistic slurs – music for dancing and contemplation. The even more enigmatically named ‘DR1 DR2 DR3 | DR4’, with Paweł Pesel, is straight-up beautiful, its cascades of chiming melodies and near-subliminal rhythmic undertow imagining, perhaps, ballroom music for a crystalline palace on some distant other world. Rory Gibb

Rafał Kołacki – Panopticon


The radical utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham planned carefully for his death in 1832. After he passed, his body was dissected in front of colleagues and rendered to the skeleton – apart from his head, which was given to his friend to mummify using "experimental techniques". The skeleton was stuffed with hay and dressed with Bentham’s own clothes, but unfortunately the mummification process didn’t work so well, discolouring the skin on his noggin and giving him a horrifying grimace. His remains in this form were to be left as an auto-icon in a glass case at the University College Of London, but his mistreated head became the target of student pranks and had to be locked away out of sight. (Bentham’s dressed skeleton, topped with waxwork head, is still occasionally rolled out at college meetings, and listed on the minutes as "present but not voting".)

Rafał Kołacki’s dark and gloomy ambient album of instant compositions is a soundtrack for a film directed by Marcin Gladysh, based on Michel Foucault’s ruminations on total surveillance. The word ‘panopticon’ originally comes from Jeremy Bentham, however, and was the name he gave to a round prison designed to allow its warders housed in the centre to see every inmate without them knowing whether they were being observed or not. He described the facility as a "mill for grinding rogues good". So, as you might imagine, this music is dark, paranoid, oppressive and baleful. It is also, however, aptly leavened with a grim sense of humour, in the same way that acts such as Gnaw Their Tongues and Sunn O))) occasionally break ranks to let you know that they realise how O.T.T. this music can be. And this album of gothic synth washes, echoing prepared piano, insectile percussion, creaking timbers and whistling winds actually is no different at times. This, perversely, allows the musicians to go even further into the realms of the sonic grand guignol, without overstepping the mark. Kołacki, an anthropologist, archaeologist, professor of sociology and member of the industrial group HATI, worked with a bewildering array of guest musicians on this project, but instead of it ending up like a madman’s breakfast of sonic inputs, it has perhaps ended up too far toward the other extreme in its complete cohesion. John Doran

Dwutysięczny – Jedwabnik


More music involving the seemingly always-at-work Wojciech Kucharczyk (does the man ever sleep?), this time in a quartet alongside Błażej Król, Jerzy Mazzoll and Radek Dziubek. The project’s title Dwutysięczny translates as "two thousand" – referring, according to a brief recent interview with Easterndaze, to the year when Król first came across the music of the other three players, a discovery that eventually led him to write to them to ask if they’d donate him some of their recorded sounds to use as source material. This debut album, whose title translates as ‘Silkworm’, is the result of a process that found him editing, chopping and re-shaping that assembled sample library (in the same interview he states that the original material was often completely transformed: "in the end, WK’s instrument sounds like a prepared clarinet what JM had played on a clarinet becomes percussive"). It’s released via Bocian and Sangoplasmo, the latter a Polish label that puts out a variety of experimental music – largely on tape and generally of darkened hues – from both Polish musicians and others from further afield (including Burial Hex, Ensemble Economique and Felicia Atkinson).

It’s a stylistically varied affair, opening with two tracks of pretty, pastoral electronica before tripping into starker, jazzier territory. The usual roles of instruments are often enhanced or subverted – on opening track ‘W miarę jak wędrujesz podnóżem góry, tajemnica się pogłębia’ what sounds like a woodwind instrument blossoms into life above shimmering drones, foregrounded and EQ’d so it acquires the presence of an additional electronic element, while on ‘Ten, który kroi jeziora’ the clarinet is treated to feel archaic, as if recovered from dusty old tapes found locked away in a filing cabinet somewhere. The latter track is especially lovely, a three-minute long sketch shrouded in a protective patina of decay and interference, and segues into ‘Śmierć pierworodnego’, whose mood is similarly thoughtful and questioning, an extended interlude for quiet contemplation. Rory Gibb

Alameda 3 – Późne Królestwo

(Instant Classic)

Busy bee Jakub ‘Kuba’ Ziołek (of Stara Rzeka, the project reviewed at the top of this column) has also released an album this month with Alameda 3, a widescreen, elemental post/space rock trio. And jolly good it is too. The band, which has Ziołek, Tomek Popowski and Mikołaj Zieliński at the core, with additional parts played by Wojtek Jachna and Tomek Pawlick, might not sound exactly like Stara Rzeka, but certain aesthetic choices are shared between both acts. Firstly, it sounds like most of the songs were written by Ziołek on an acoustic 12 string, before muscle, organs, fat and skin are added to this skeleton in the shape of interstellar overdriven space rock guitars, heart-of-the-sun analogue synths, two-thousand-light-years-from-home drums and even some very terrestrial brass.

Secondly, this project is just as maximal and sublime, and its riffs call to mind earthquakes, black holes, Larsen B, Olympus Mons… those kind of things. This means that we start off in the realm of post-rock, with reference points such as ‘Up The Beach’ by Jane’s Addiction, ‘The Road Leads Where It’s Led’ by Secret Machines and ‘March Into The Sea’ by Pelican. But where Alameda 3 excel is in the knowledge that if you’re going to make maximal music you can (and should) always keep on adding more. The problem with most modern post-rock (apart from the rigid genre conventions and predictability of riffs, builds and drops etc) is that it starts epic and then stays in exactly the same place for the duration of the set/album. Alameda 3, to borrow a phrase from Cecile B. Demille, start with an earthquake and then build to a climax, throwing in the odd black hole and volcano along the way.

Also, as space rock goes, this is very playful. Sure some of it sounds like prime Hawkwind, but other bits of it reference the sickening void of space in more playful ways, when synths start momentarily emulating the ‘Kyrie’ section of Ligeti’s Requiem (which was used on the soundtrack to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). The group save the best for last on the title track, which starts off by exploring the same, skull crushingly heavy Hubble deep field range as Italian cosmonauts UFOmammut, but then unexpectedly drops into an unusually languid, Tangerine Dream meets Ennio Morricone mid-section, which then explodes into some proper ribcage destroying black metal. And even at thirteen minutes long, the track is over far too quickly. John Doran

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