Volga: Kumushki Pjut
Volga the band shares many characteristics with their namesake, the holy national river of Russia. The anchor of the group, Angela Manukian, is a tremendous vocalist adept at singing in Russian dialects; a talent put to good use, as Manukian researches centuries-old Russian texts (some dating back to 1100 A.D.) for Volga's repertoire. Just as the Volga River touches upon many regions of Russia, Volga the band similarly wends its way through the vast tributaries of the country, melding together the ancient and the modern. Along for the journey are two other core members of Volga, Roman Lebedev (electronics and guitar), and Uri Balashov (zvukosuk – a string instrument, and Tibetan cup), but the group also includes guests on bagpipes (Sergei Klevensky) and bass (Alexey Ostashev).
I've been enjoying Volga's music for a decade, and their sound has certainly evolved. The Volga project has always been highly experimental: while the songs are olden, the electronics -- and Volga's treatment of their material – pose a challenge to the listener to accept these Russian, pagan songs with a new, avant-garde pulse. Early Volga works ranged from the minimalistic, to the dissonant, and even dallied in unconventional remixes. Manukian's vocals are sung, chanted, sometimes screeched; Volga would often seem like an electro-Shamanistic experience, throwing old tunes into the bonfire of modernity.
"Kumushki Pjut [Gossiping Ladies]"
On Kumushki Pjut, the agenda has been refined, and I would argue that the album is Volga's most 'listener-friendly' since 2006's Pomol album. The band revisits some of their tunes (such as "Pomol [Grinding]," and "Kumushki Pjut [Gossiping Ladies Having A Drink]"), collectively eyeing the dancefloor. Make no mistake – Kumushki Pjut is a pummeling sonic experience, and the beats are relentless: however, we are still hearing the Russian tradition through a glass, darkly.
"Kaverzi [Unexpected Trouble]"
"Kaverzi [Unexpected Trouble]," the lead-off track, starts off sweetly enough; with its stop-start rhythm and shuffling cadence, it is a slightly deceptive song and hardly hints at the clubland experience to follow. However, plenty of squelchy, discordant electronics burst forth at the beginning of the tune, which raises the listener's expectations as to how Volga plan to mix the experimental with a 'pop' approach. Also notable is Lebedev's guitar work – prominently featured throughout the album -- which really provides the hook for the song. With "Rzhandoe Zhito [Rye Rye]," we are treated to a tribal drum pattern and echoing background sonics whilst Manukian's voice scales into the upper register. Volga initiates us into pure trance rhythms. Suddenly, a burst of electronic thrumming segues into bagpipes, and the result kicks "Rye Rye" into a head-whirlingly stunning experience.
"Postyli Muzh [Bad Husband]"
"Postyli Muzh [Bad Husband]" features some particularly down-and-dirty guitar, transforming Volga into a feral Russian electro-blues band; even Manukian's vocals are doubled up for extra effect. Simultaneously haunting and weirdly danceable, "Golova [Head]" continues in a similar vein, but Manukian coos her lines as the band churns out a crunching loop that eventually gives way to feedback and electronic squealing. "Pomol [Grinding]" is given a beat that fits the title, as Volga heads into hardcore techno, switches to electronic house music…and back again, with Manukian alternating between howling and whispering. "Pomol" grinds, massively, a total release.
"Bolozi [To Goodness]"
While the terrain thus might seem somewhat familiar, Volga's vision for their music is just off-kilter enough to make their brand of avant-dance music worth repeated listens. "Mara Nochka [Small Night]" implies some kind of village ceremonial, not through the use of ethnic instruments, but the nimble combination of the circular guitar line and sparkling electronics. A song such as "Bolozi [To Goodness]" also benefits from added accordion, while the title track's galloping rhythm heightens the traditional foundations under the contemporary gloss. Best of all, Angela Manukian sounds as if she is having a blast; on "Zacharovan [Enchanted]," one could even think of Volga as a kind of 21st-century electro-medieval version of X-Ray Spex. And really, what more could you possibly want? - Lee Blackstone
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