Poland didn’t experience a wave of nostalgia for the countryside through its music or art in the same way that countries of the West did. After WWII, most Eastern Bloc states were involved in large-scale, pressured urbanization that drove people from villages and small towns into industrial cityscapes, which soon began expanding at the hands of Stalin’s economic development strategy. This had a huge impact on Poland in particular, because it was destined to provide the region with coal — the fuel of the empire — and required the use of a strong labor force. While musicians across Western Europe, the UK, and the US juxtaposed tales of agraria with insights concerning the scope of urban development, censorship brutally reigned over any Pole brave enough to demonstrate their affection for the livelihoods they had left behind. Urbanization continued deep into the 1980s, and by the time music expurgation started to soften, artists such as Kazik and Jacek Kaczmarski had set a consistent discourse in motion, which raged, quite understandably, about the state of political affairs, Solidarnosc, and governmental abuse, as opposed to the disenchanted memories of lives led outside the city.
The few musicians who did express rural reminiscence in ways that didn’t confirm to government-dictated aesthetic preferences often found that their output was limited to low-key performances for friends in underground bars instead of large public concerts and radio airplay. Artists bearing such inclinations risked imprisonment when censorship was at its most heightened, and this meant Poland bypassed any Americana-tainted trends to land itself slap-bang in a cultural zeitgeist that revels in admiration for the cosmopolitan cities it has done so well to develop; Kraków, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Warszawa, Lódz, Poznan, etc. Stara Rzeka is a product of that stepping stone in absentia, of a musical landscape that went from mass deprivation to instantaneous bombardment in half a decade, and despite the project’s channeled objective, it draws influence from a wonderfully varied selection of stylistic sources.
The outfit is fronted by guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Kuba Ziólek, who also plays in Alameda Trio, Innercity Ensemble, and Ed Wood, among others. On his first solo effort as Stara Rzeka, he uses a range of guitars, effects pedals, synths, and a MicroKorg to meld transcendental acoustic folk music with drone, kosmische, and black metal to mind-blowing effect. Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem ramifies a sense of nostalgia and longing in the modern era by exemplifying the understated beauty of the Polish countryside, along with a sonic depiction of hard graft in working the fields and a warmhearted appreciation of the surrounding topography.
Ziólek has used his Bandcamp page to pry apart the intentions, inspiration, and content of this mysterious and little-known full-length. The text is all in Polish, but Google’s translation is relatively accurate if you can forgive minor glitches in the algorithm. In accompanying notes for the album’s brilliant opener, “Przebudzenie Boga Wschodu,” Ziólek recalls taking a cocktail of psychedelics and watching the sun rise; he discusses the importance of this process in every day life and identifies how such a phenomenon is taken for granted as a consequence of its frequency. His aural interpretation sends acoustic guitar stings calmly into a wave of grainy feedback and synths, which unfold over the 12-minute track’s mid-section and the first point at which the record takes an unexpected turn — a rattling cage of distortion, vicious drum ricochets and scorched vocals — an astute contrast to the initial chords, which leaves you feeling as though the music could go in any direction. Fortunately, the path it takes is selective in its variation, as it boasts rich and sumptuous overtones that leak across the confides of categorization.
Those first few minutes encompass a fascinating sequence, because at that early stage, the album is still building its hypnotic momentum. The track title translates as “The God of the East Awakens,” and as an opening piece, that sentimentality for the countryside and the importance of agricultural Slavic traditions begin to unfold, whether they are conscious or otherwise. Even though Ziólek is more interested in the village as a contemporary phenomenon, where farmers use loud machinery to drown out the squealing of pigs as they are slaughtered for black market trade, and where every second dwelling has an internet connection, the project’s namesake translates as “Old River” and is in fact a settlement just outside of Tuchole in Northern Poland. The region is home to one of the country’s most superb National Parks; it’s a perfect setting, typical of an area encompassing natural wonder, and a miniature model for the Polish village that saw its community split apart during mass urbanization. Throughout its history, Poland has seen so much tumult as a consequence of its geopolitical situation, while the rural landscape has remained the same — the sonic personification of that image is expertly rendered through Ziólek’s use of historical references, sylvan imagery, and symbolism, from the reef knot (often used to tie bales of hay) on the cassette version of the album’s cover to his appropriation of Avraham Halfi’s poetry. This is not an album that merely wallows in the sanctity of the countryside, but it embeds itself deeply within the culture while gesturing towards daily toil and the supernatural components that come with it.
It’s difficult to listen to the hurling black metal tirade of “Tej Nocy” without paying particular attention to the bells that chime through the opening bars. It brings to mind the presence of the Catholic church and the influence it yields in every village throughout Poland. As a structure, it remains dominant, a place of worship and importance, but not necessarily of promise, as the clusters of drunken men drifting around the outsides of the parish will tell you. However, the religious connection is carried from the church to the fields and the areas that people work. Priests ceremoniously visit these localities during the beginning of May and bless them to ensure a bountiful harvest. With Stara Rzeka, ecclesiastical connotations extend far beyond “Bron Nas Od Zlego” (“Deliver Us From Evil”) and are transported through the hypnotic, trance-enducing drone sequences of the title track, as well as the graceful and punishing “Nächtlich Spaziergang Durch Klinger.” The album deals equally in darkness and in light, regardless of the spectral tones it conjures and the recording errors that resulted in its delay — Ziólek has achieved a fascinating production that thrives on the intensity of everything it borrows from.
Cień Chmury paints a fragmented picture of the humble life, pulling forcefully on a swarm of influences that range from musical curiosity and 19th-century poetry to rural tradition and beyond. What makes this effort so captivating in practice is the way that these stylistic preferences blend together like a fresh slab of kaszanka, bitter and potent, congealed in dried blood. The depth of this unparalleled synthesis is flaunted through an incredible cover of Nico’s “My Only Child,” which operates as yet another symbol — this time depicting Ziólek’s fixation on decline and transformation, themes he finds entrenched deep within Desertshore, as well as in the passing of an era in European history. Where in the past, yearning for the countryside was seen as a regression antithetical to urban planning, Stara Rzeka flips that notion on its head, not only through illustrating its value in a society that remains dominated by the role of the city, but with an honest and accurate depiction of the beauty there to be found.