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Vera Kondrateva & Kristian Blak

Lipet Ei - Seven Brothers

Tutl Records (
Review by Dylan McDonnell

Listen "Aaveq/Walrus"

It is not often one gets to hear samples and syntheses of musics of those residing immediately below the North Pole, especially at many different longitudes. Yggdrasil (named for the Norse tree of life) allows us that opportunity, drawing on the soundscapes and mythologies of the “circum-Arctic” region, specifically the Faroe Islands, Siberia, northwestern Canada, and the Aleutian Islands. The cinematic compositions and arrangements of Faroese multi-instrumentalist Kristian Blak and Russian singer Vera Kondrateva temper the older traditional materials with clarity and sublime sensitivity. Kondrateva sings primarily in Khanty, a language spoken mostly in western Siberia, surrounded by up to five other musicians at once, spanning string, wind, and percussion textures indigenous to these Arctic communities. Staying true to the liner notes, Yggdrasil remains “in a state of cosmic equilibrium, constantly threatened and devoured as it grows and flourishes.” Allow me to explain.

Listen "Aikuelli - Ne areh"

Straight from the opening track, the ensemble presents a dense palate of competing yet complementary textures.. “Aikuelli - Ne areh (The Woman's Song)” begins in unison melody between Kondrateva and saxophonist Villu Veski, transitions into seemingly improvised backgrounds that become more elaborate, followed distorted guitar solo that captures the essence of the confrontation between a husband and the seven brothers of his wife, the sons of the supreme Ugric (western Siberian) god. The wide-openness of the track feeds into “Aaveq (Walrus)”, an episodic piece based on traditional singing and drumming from the Aleutian Islands. Kondrateva sings what sounds like non-syllabic utterances over a stomping pulse, then over perpetual harmonic modulation from Blak's impressionistic piano. Veski's expansive Coltrane-like tenor sax melody, sometimes breaking with emotional intensity, toes the line between freer improvisation and melodic coherence.

Listen "Goose"

Beyond “Aaveq,” images of Arctic animals assume the foreground throughout the record (“Ehe (Yakut Bear)”), often embodied by sounds specific to their habitats, such as reindeer bells and jaw harp, a cinematic means of presenting characters ephemerally. The three-part suite at the end of the album (“Eagle”/”Eight-Legged Horse”/”Goose”) follows the transformation of a shaman during a séance, progressing from dissonant piano to the “mysticism” of the Phrygian mode. “Goose,” however, leaves the most lasting impression, as a jaw-harp keeps the pulse beneath an impressionistic, almost hymnal piano rhapsody.

Listen "Grind í karry"

A regional sense of place pervades Lipet Ei as well. Blak's “Grind í karry”, a composition honoring the 100-plus nationalities embodied by the citizens of the Faroe Islands, invokes local mystical practices through the musings of violinist Angelika Nielsen and recorder player Sharon Weiss. The underlying melodic fragments are gradually obscured by increasing density and a jazz trio section, including an extremely disciplined drum improvisation. The sacred and literal images of flowing water arise in “Lyamin,” named for a river in western Siberia, also a local symbol of fertility and eternal life.

Though it is often unclear which particular sounds represent which circum-Arctic communities in the world of Yggdrasil, most of the tracks give the sense of moving from a periphery to a core, chaos to resolution. Ultimately, it is up to the listener to decide what is “authentic” or significant from such a remote source. However, the stream of vivid stories and images, in languages bound to be unfamiliar to most listeners, holds fast due to the power of the sound, rather than intrinsic meaning. From this standpoint, Yggdrasil is likely to take root in many ears and warrants relistening many times over. - Dylan McDonnell

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