Hala Strana These Villages

[Soft Abuse; 2005]

Rating: 3/5

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

Part of the Jewelled Antler Collective's mystique has been the freshness, originality, and inventiveness with which the releases of the collective's constituent artists are typically rife. Multi-instrumentalist and experimental folk virtuoso Steven R. Smith, one of Jewelled Antler's core members and founders, has historically been the group's most prolific artist, when one takes into account Smith's innumerable solo projects, his releases as part of Thuja, and his recordings as Hala Strana. These Villages, Smith's fourth release and third full-length as Hala Strana, appears to mark a change of direction, however significant, for Smith's Slavic-imbued side project

Smith's interest in the traditional folk music of Eastern Europe is manifest in his first three releases as Hala Strana: the Karst EP on Jewelled Antler, his self-titled debut LP, and Fielding, Hala Strana's phenomenal double album, which was recently reissued on Last Visible Dog. As on previous releases, Smith intersperses his own interpretations of Eastern European traditional pieces (in this case, Croatian, Romanian, and Czech) with his own originals that bear the influence of the folk music of Eastern Europe.

One of the things that made the first Hala Strana releases so interesting was the air of antiquated authenticity which permeated the music. For instance, on both Hala Strana and Fielding, the casual listener would be considerably hard-pressed to make a distinction between the originals and the traditional pieces without the use of the liner notes. Simply put, the earlier Hala Strana records are of a strikingly homogeneous nature. With respect to These Villages, Smith appears to have made something of a musical departure, albeit a somewhat intriguing one.

The musical palette on These Villages is much more drab and atonal than that of Hala Strana's earlier material. While the tones on Fielding and Hala Strana were of woody, earthy, autumnal hues, the tones on These Villages are of a considerably grayer, bleaker nature. Within the album's first few tracks, it becomes clear that Smith has endeavored to create a recording that is more minimal and stark than the Hala Strana releases to which we're accustomed. Though the press release indicates as much, it is worth mentioning that these pieces have a distinctly raga-like quality. The entire album seems anchored together by long, sustained drones produced by a variety of musical instruments including cello, harmonium, accordion, etc. Smith's influences appear to have migrated eastward on this particular outing. The overall effect of These Villages upon the listener is to lull them into a somewhat melancholic trance. It's not an unpleasant experience per se, merely one that is substantially less warm and rich than the effect induced by other Hala Strana releases. To be fair, however, Steven R. Smith's instrumental talent is as impressive, diverse, and impeccably precise as always. These Villages is another notably worthwhile effort from a man whose overall contribution to the "free-folk" genre has been both influential and vast.

1. Wood Scree
2. Dressed In Rushes
3. The Great Season
4. October
5. Meitas Gula Abolaje
6. Fear of the Land
7. Népdal Tárogatón
8. The Carved Yoke
9. Dilkash
10. Peal
11. For G. Mesmer

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