Hala Strana Hala Strana

[Emperor Jones; 2003]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: folk drone, Eastern European Folk, traditional field recordings
Others: Thuja, Nils Økland, Kemialliset Ystavat, Popol Vuh

Hala Strana, the self-titled debut on the Emperor Jones label, is the third solo outing from Thuja’s Steven R. Smith, part of the mysterious American purveyors of experimental folk drone known as the Jewelled Antler Collective. I’ve become fascinated by these guys lately due to their entirely unorthodox approach to music-making and their fusion of environmental "found" sounds with traditional song structures. It is very interesting stuff. However, in contrast to a lot of other releases related to the Jewelled Antler Collective, which can be extremely abstract, to the point of sounding like not much more than environmental field recordings, Hala Strana is a much more melodic record.

The instrumentation itself is very diverse. Smith mixes traditional acoustic and electric guitar with organ, glockenspiel, and other traditional Eastern European instruments. Amazingly, Smith plays nearly every instrument on the album; and there are many, many instruments listed. Supposedly, these tracks are based on Eastern European melodies, and two tracks are apparently reworkings of traditional Transylvanian and Moravian songs. There is, however, an unquestionably palpable minor-key, Slavic tone to this record. Like the 70s psych-prog band Popol Vuh, Hala Strana fuse ethnic textures with droney Krautrock-influenced psych-folk. At times it’s not too dissimilar to the music performed by the multi-instrumentalist street musician and title character in Werner Herzog’s 1979 film, Stroczek.

On "Stouthrief," Smith plays acoustic guitar over a vinyl record loop, giving the song an antiquated feel. The vinyl static also adds a sense of age and possible decay to the song. "Jede Forman Dolinu" almost sounds like it could be an outtake from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs or Black Rider LPs. Like those Waits albums, there is a murky pall of grayness hanging over the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s a bleakness tinged with warmth since the music has a pleasantly melancholy edge. "Millstones," in particular, has an extremely cinematic feel, with beautiful organ and chorus singing in the background. The guitar almost has a Dick Dale-esque, twangy surf guitar aesthetic, and the Hammond organ sounds very 60s psych-like. Considering how prolific the members of the Jewelled Antler Collective are, both individually and collectively, I’m looking forward to hearing more from Steven R. Smith very soon. This is a beautiful, mentally stimulating and highly recommended album.

1. Cinnamon Shops
2. Stria
3. Jede Forman Dolinu
4. Quarter Mesto
5. Streets of Raised Platforms
6. Spring Plume
7. Brickwork and Scoria
8. The Strictness of Beauty
9. Stouthrief
10. Alate
11. Black Dust
12. Millstones
13. A Second Fall

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