Theodor Bastard: Oikoumene / Vetvi

Sometimes an album comes along that transfixes you through sheer brilliance of sound-world, vision, composition and instrumentation. “Vetvi” by Theodor Bastard – a Russian group of many multi-instrumentalist members – is one such album, which will certainly be in my top five best albums of this year. The music evokes wide open Asian plains, massed groups of chanting peoples, tribal drums, deep lakes and high mountains, and more, both sonically and visually in the imagination of the listener. Opening with the wonderfully doomy ‘Umbraya Erze,’ the tone is set: a kind of deep, musically diverse, multi-cultured psychedelic rock music founded on some traditional instruments, with rolling, passionate vocals laid over the top. The title track brings in more unusual instruments plus modern drum programming. That the vocals are in Russian doesn’t seem to matter with music this good. ‘Salameika’ opens with the stunning voice of Yana Veva, who handles most of the singing, while drums and much percussion add to the drama, as does the santur, and, later, subtle synths behind the full band. ‘Kukushka’ again evokes vast Asian plains and high flying birds as its quirky rhythm progresses, while ‘Aion’ opens with a reeded instrument, or possibly a flute, as the santur and then the full band come in for another high-drama track. ‘Niti’ mixes high tech with more beautiful vocals – an album highlight – while ‘Veter’ features the traditional singing of Namgar Lhasaranova in a particularly gorgeous mix of ethnic and modern. This track reminded me of some of the work of Trail Records’ bands Ole Lukkoye and Sky Cries Mary. ‘Yaard’ has a lovely flute part and more of the “war drums” (the band’s description) that are such a central part of the sound. The album closes with a cut of doom-laden vibe and rattling percussion. Housed in a CD package laden with beautiful artwork by Elia Mervi and the band’s prime singer, Yana Veva, this is an outstanding work. Any fan of diverse, superbly played and recorded modern music is going to love this. I certainly did.

“Vetvi” however is not the band’s debut release. In 2012 they released “Oikoumene,” which is similar in pan-cultural sound but which relies less on the drum kit, and so has a lighter feel. The quality of music, recording and production however is just as high as the new release. Opening with ‘Takaya Mija,’ a small army of wonderful percussion instruments is used, and then a haunting esraj, played by Ranadhir Ghosh: a hint of Natasha Atlas here, albeit only by association. ‘Farias’ reminded me of some of Transglobal Underground’s work, especially in the vocals, this time performed alongside Fedor Svolotch, who is the band’s prime member and founder. ‘Gerda’ and ‘Benga’ continue the sonic exploration before the track ‘Sagrabat (Diumgo),’ which features the vocals of band collaborator Julien Jacob. This is a spooky cut in a slightly different style, but it works superbly well on its own, and as a break in the whole work. Another Indian solo instrument, the sarod, here played by Rampur Rani, adds to the global vibe. The title track uses found sounds plus another huge collection of ethnic percussion to heighten the atmosphere, including the resonant daf. ‘Tapachula’ and ‘Intifadah’ are strong on traditional sounds and solos, especially the bawu, a kind of Chinese flute, while ‘Clean Kron’ is a high-tech, glitchy cut of synths, guitars and sundry other instruments. ‘Anubis’ closes the album proper with a full-band epic based around traditional instruments and another striking Yana Veva vocal. A Fun-Da-Mental remix by Aki Nawaz closes the disk, recalling those heady days in the 1990s when this genre of music was briefly commercially popular in Britain and elsewhere. Another superb album from a fantastic band, this time housed in luscious paintings by Boris Indrikov – highly recommended.

(Steve Palmer)


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