One of the most fascinating albums I've been sent for review was An Ambassador in Bonds, which was last year's release from Russian band Compassionizer. My review followed my futile attempts to figure out quite what Ivan Rozmainsky and the various musicians he enlisted were trying to do, right down to the genre of music they played. For the sake of a label, it's progressive rock, but it's not prog in a typical form. The lead instrument was a clarinet, for a start! I didn't reach the term "chamber prog", which is perfect, in that review but I found the links to classical music clear.
It's probably easier to do that here on their next album, which is their third, and now I've seen the term, I can google it and see that it's quite a movement that goes back to bands like Aksak Maboul and Univers Zero. Hello, new rabbit hole, my friend! This could be considered pure chamber prog, I guess, because it doesn't remotely pretend to sit in the rock genre. What percussion there is here is a long way from traditional drumming, and, while Rozmainsky brings in abrasive textures on his synths, almost with the goal of keeping this experimental, the vast majority of these tracks could been recorded with the instruments in a school music room, albeit maybe not an English one.
And, given that most of it is happier and calmer in nature than the prior album, it's not much of a stretch to picture that. Music was a mandatory class at my grammar school in England and I recall certain moments where the teacher taught us unusual approaches, like creating a score not with traditional notes but with lines of colour or even random squiggles. Our attempts to interpret the results on xylophones and violins, or whatever we had to hand, probably sounded painful, but now I can look back and imagine Andre Stefinoff as a child prodigy picking up a clarinet in that class to play a piece like The Invasion of a Crying Shame, with Rozmainsky and Serghei Liubcenco joining in on the nearest instruments.
While I liked the opener, Only One Road for the Wayward, which probably contains the darkest of the material here, especially in its jazzy midsection, The Invasion of a Crying Shame is where this album grabbed me. It's a wildly experimental piece but it doesn't seem so because its melody is a timeless earworm that it steals our focus. It has a mediaeval troubadour feel to me but a carefree one with hints of darkness, as if the plague had visited town but then moved on again leaving only a couple of people dead instead of everyone. There's certainly solemnity in it but hope as well.
And things certainly get happier and more hopeful from there, in Black Sky White and especially I Need You to Help and onward, to provide an increasingly uplifting tone after this early darkness. I liked this shift in tone, even though I'm usually fonder of the darker material on albums. Last time out, I mentioned that it would have seemed jazzy, if everything didn't seem so deliberately placed. This album is jazzier, because it's less deliberately placed. It's looser and folkier and more organic and textures arrive and depart whenever they feel like it.
I often got the feeling, especially on songs like the title track, that Rozmainsky simply acquired a slew of interesting musical instruments and placed them into a studio to serve as a well equipped petting zoo, then invited only professional musicians with open minds to check them out. They did so, seeing what sounds might manifest from a rubab or a doira or a tbilat, promptly tapping into each other's grooves. The beginning of In Things Too High for Me could have been the theme tune to a BBC children's show on the wireless in the fifties. Naturally that show would have been about creativity and the synths that Rozmainsky adds next would have blown people's minds back then.
The only catch to the looseness and spontaneity is that his electronic overlays sometimes become a distraction, as with the staticky glitch work on Kramatorsk. I loved the beeps and chirps on most of these songs, like The Invasion of a Crying Shame or In Things Too High for Me, but I was notably frustrated by Kramatorsk, which I ended up removing from the playlist as I listened through again and again to see how this grew and shifted on me with repeats. While Kramatorsk is fourteen and a half minutes of music, even taking it out leaves three quarters of an hour to explore over and over.
That track is why I'm only going with 7/10 this time, instead of the 8/10 that I gave An Ambassador in Bonds. This is more fascinating chamber prog, lighter and looser but just as enticing and worthy of a heck of a lot of exploration. Thanks, Hans and Ivan, for sending this one over.