Wednesday 12 February 2020

Divlje Jagode - Jukebox (2020)

Country: Croatia
Style: Hard Rock/Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2020
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Nowadays, with the benefit of the internet, it's easy to hear bands from all over the world, but back in the eighties, when I discovered rock music, that was far from the case. Germany seemed to be a busy rock country, with Accept and Warlock and the Scorpions and the rest, but it was rare to hear anything from countries we take for granted today like Sweden and Finland, let alone a band like Divlje Jagode from Zagreb, then part of Yugoslavia.

What made this band different was that they deliberately pushed for western acceptance. I remember their 1987 album, released under the English name of Wild Strawberries, but it wasn't their first. They'd formed in 1977 and put out five earlier albums before moving to London and switching to an English language approach. They sounded good then, though I'm remembering them being a little softer than this. It didn't work out and they returned home, which is Croatia nowadays, where they're now forty plus years into their history.

I haven't heard them at all since 1987 but this is really good melodic hard rock/heavy metal, driven by sole founder member Zele Lipovača's guitar but led nowadays by the memorably lived in voice of Livio Berak. It couldn't be mistaken for anything but a hard rock voice but it belongs to an old school soulful style reminiscent of David Coverdale and Robert Plant. I think he's as natural and rich, equally capable of belting on rockers and crooning on less impactful numbers, whether they're ballads or not.

Lipovača refuses to leave all the melody to Berak though. There's melody in his guitar, even outside overtly melodic songs like Zauvijek tvoj. It's in the keyboards of Damjan Deurić too, who elevates already strong songs like Sama si, which has a real Rainbow feel to it. I wondered if the strings and other orchestrations were Deurić's work too but I'm not convinced. I think there must be a bunch of guest slots here, even if I don't know who by. And this incessant use of melody is one reason why the album is as short as it is.

I don't mean that it's short, because it runs almost fifty minutes, but it's short for a twelve track album. Only two songs here last past the four and a half minute mark and they only do it by four seconds each. The shortest song is under three minutes, a guitar version of Beethoven's Für Elise called, in Croatian, Za Elizu, that's done in a very different way to Accept's version. The songs are short because they hit the melody immediately so don't need to add bridges and extra choruses in to make anything memorable.

What else struck me here is how Lipovača is so economical a guitarist. When he plays a riff, it's simple and no nonsense, but very effective. When he's in his overtly bluesy mode, like early on Sarajevo ti i ja, he employs a lot less notes on his guitar that most guitarists would, but to no less effect. Zvijezda sjevera is as notable for what isn't in it as what is. The absence of long solos is another reason why these songs last for only three or four minutes each.

Also, for all the traditional hard rock approach, this is modern music, most obvious in the rap section on Dug je bio put but also in the orchestrations, which are integrated more like, say, Rage than the Moody Blues. It's also in the patience with which these songs unfold. Whether they're slow ones, like Sama si, or faster ones, like Nemam ništa protiv, they never feel urgent. It isn't about energy any more, it's about melody, musicianship and mastery of songwriting.

And I think that's why this is a grower of an album. I enjoyed it first time through but there are no standout tracks because everything's up to the same high standard and that only starts to become clear on a third or fourth time through. I've had it on repeat for most of a day now and it continues to get better and better. Sure, seven of these are old songs re-recorded by the present band, with four completely new ones and that Beethoven cover, but it plays very consistently.

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