Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Rational Diet - At Work (2008), Rational Diet (2007)

In anticipation of a new Rational Diet album, I am posting this review I wrote for the Belarus ensemble's album from 2008 called At Work and their s/t album from 2007.
Thanks for Marcello of Altr0ck for providing the promotional copies for these reviews.

Rational Diet (2007)


This is the second release in the catalogue of AltrOck Records after the excellent Yugen's Labirinto D'acqua album released in 2006. It seems the label is hunting for those left-field bands/musicians, and with these two they have done a very good job. Both have an independent sound (sure it has influences, but I don't think they're copy- cat bands in anyway) and much talent.

Rational Diet is a Belarus sextet (in this album) along with five guest musiciams playing music incorporating and influenced by modern classic composers and avant-rock. The press note that came with the promotional CD says that: "Rational Diet proposes an unusual mix of styles and sounds: Chamber music, rock, theatre and improvisation, supported by the amazingly instrumental abilities of their components. It's difficult to define the mood of such music, which goes from dark atmosphere to grotesque, powerful or oniric, sometimes even humoristic."
They state their influences to be: "Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Webern, Ives, King Crimson, Henry Cow, Art Bears, Univers Zero, Present, Debile Menthol". While I don't necessarily hear all those in the music, I can hear some of them (Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Art Zoyd and Stravinsky) and the overall interchanging sound of Rational Diet certainly fits the "musical module" that these musicians and composers create. To give you an idea of the musical palate of the band, the instrumentation consists of rock/modern instruments alongside classic instruments; guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, tenor sax, accordion, violin, cello and bassoon.

This review was hard for me to write as the music is not easy to define and I fear I may have done a disservice with my lame attempt at a review and if you get any bad impression from this review, please attribute it to me and not the music or the band.

A short discussion of particular tracks:

I won't go over all the tracks, but I'll give some thoughts and descriptions of some of them. If you wish you can skip to the end of the review where I wrote a general summary about the album.

From The Grey Notebook - Intro and Part 1:
Starting with a disjointed duo of bassoon and sax in the intro (fitting an Henry Cow album) the music flows then to Part 1 with the keyboards, guitar and drums playing a repetitive dynamic and dark passage. It is a track in which there is a roaming between a disjointed, nervous and restless rhythm to a more flowing one. The music is somewhat dark and brooding with some keyboards that evoke a chapel organ sound. There are elements or traces if you will of UZ, Present (in the flowing parts) and Henry Cow (in the disjointed parts). They switch between parts in which the rock instrumentation dominates (but they are not playing exclusively, they are accompanied by the rest of the group) to parts in which the "modern rock" sound gives way for the classical part to come through.

Stop, Kolpakoff!:
More of a Chamber music track with some quirky passages, going wild and noisy. The bassoon's sound evokes a classic feeling that clashes with the modern, weird and avant- garde patterns of the music and ultimately its role fits in well with the rest of the music.The violin here has a slightly "demented" sound, if you understand what I mean, going not really off-key, but slightly dis-harmonic (which fits the music). There are spoken vocals, which are said to be "texts by the Russian Avant-garde poets Daniil Charms and Alexei Kruchemykh" and they add to the general quirkiness of this particular piece. This track culminates with the violin playing ascending squeaky notes, as the accordion keeps with its constant supporting role with the rest of the instruments. In this seemingly chaotic affair, there's directionality to the music, and while some may be improvised it remains impressively under control.

I Refrained From Closing My Eyes:
At some point, especially towards the end, there are so many things going on simultaneously and it becomes very demanding to keep track of everything. This is a case that demands repeated listening until you get the full picture of all the different instrumental lines and the structure of the music. This may sound like chaos, but it is controlled chaos, as everything blends in together very well, and this is a main attribute about this band I admire. They compose complex music, with many layers, if you will, and still everything is in place, "goes along well with the others" and fits in. The end result is fascinating to listen to, asking you to try and decipher the semi-hidden melodies (to "conventional ears"). It is also not disharmonic as this description may infer. With their music, there's no real discomfort to sensitive ears, only the requisition for opening your mind (and neurons) for this challenging and unconventional music. Their craftsmanship of making this type of music is to be commended. This is not senseless throwing away of unrelated notes, disjointed passages of music with no rhythm. There is thought, emotion and passion behind (actually it's in the forefront) of this music.

From The Grey Notebook - Part 2:
This is probably the most melodic and flowing song in the album. The piano here gives a driving force that was not present in the other tracks. But that is not to say that the usual oddities are not here as well. It might be a good intro to the band's style as this is the most accessible piece.

Summary of the album:

The music derives its influences from past avant-rock, RIO and chamber music bands (Henry Cow, Univers Zero et al.) and the composers that influenced those bands as well. The music alternates between certain moods, feelings and styles. At times weird and quirky and in others chaos seems to dominate the music (but as I said, it's only seemingly so). In other parts, you have a dark atmosphere ruling over the sound, and in other, it gets a bit more light-hearted and theatrical in parts. The overall feelings I get from the music are that it's complex, dense unconventional and eerie, which I like very much. The musicians here do not try to show how much they know how to play their instruments (and they probably know it well) but to show how their instruments can be at the service of music, how they can create sounds and melodies (yes, melodies!) that are different and unconventional but appealing nonetheless.

Compared to AltrOck previous album by Italian band Yugen, this is even more daring. The music is less melodic, weirder, more abstract and free-form. This is not an album you will listen to each day, but when you do, your full and undivided attention needs to be given to it, otherwise a great proportion of the many details in it get lost and you miss the strange and eerie atmosphere this release has.

This will not appeal to people looking for nice and friendly harmonies, melodies (except from the last track), and accessible music. If you like any of the influences the band states of having, then you should look into it. This is for those who want to experiment, experience and be challenged. I enjoyed the challenge and I will take it again.

At Work (2008)

In 2007 this Belarusian ensemble released their s/t album through Altr0ck and it was one of my favourites of that year and a great album overall. Their quirky style, inspired by classical composers such as Stravinsky and Ives to experimental and progressive rock groups such as Univers Zero has won me over and I was highly anticipating their next effort. Little did I know that it would turn out to be such a brilliant album, which shows a progression from their previous output, going into new direction, trying and experimenting with new routes and possibilities.

The lineup consists of a basic rock unit of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums along with a classical lineup of saxophone, bassoon, cello, violin and piano, giving them a range of opportunities to create a wide musical "palate" of sounds. There are also female vocals on some tracks.

9 tracks and songs are in here, mostly short, or not too long, with a charming atmosphere, beautiful melodies which are surprisingly catchy and at times sound like Stravinsky gone electric. The music is always changing, there is constant experimentation, but not for experimentation's sake, but to find more ways for the music to advance and achieve another effect, another point in its route of progression, another beautiful peak. The music, while at times can seem chaotic, is always under control, always meticulously performed and orchestrated.
The brilliant parts, such as in Pukhow, where the piano seems at times to go berserk, are beautifully in line with the music, gorgeously arranged to lead the music onward, brilliantly composed to sound both out of line and in line with the rest of the band.
A track like Dear Kontrabandist evokes the intensity and accuracy of Univers Zero with the madness and oddness of Le Silo. The zany saxophone goes wild while the rest of the lineup is punctually playing allowing its rogue member to express himself. The piano is the basis for this song, giving excellent bouncy and catchy rhythm. The vocals which might evoke a Magma-ian chant fit perfectly with the music. Even the very short tracks like Wet Moss have more meat and power to them than a lot of epic length tracks on other progressive rock albums. Those could and probably should have been longer as they contain great ideas that could be expanded. But if you take Wet Moss together with The Mourners, which is another short track, you might get that exactly.
On Closed Case, there is a Miriodor-ian feel, as the saxophone paves the way forcefully with a highly dynamic rhythm section backing it. Then they make way for a calmer yet eerie section where the bassoon, whose sound I love, makes abrupt appearances with the strong section along with the piano creating the spooky and quirky feeling that dominates this part. The alternation between aggressive and passive is another appealing feature in this piece.
Ariel's Last Dream is a violin lead track, more peaceful in nature, but still full of dynamics and passion and fabulous musicianship (as the entire album is). Horse Enemy is yet another gem here, with more Univers Zero and Present influence (at times a Univers Zero and Present on amphetamines), but not only these bands. Also, by now giving those references seems to not do justice to Rational Diet as this is their own sound. Condemned, the centerpiece of this release, is the longest on the album (almost 11 minutes) and is dominated by the "classical" side of the band, with great rhythm provided by the drums, which fit flawlessly with the whole sound and aided by the angry guitar riff as well. There are segments here where the music becomes furious and seems to overflow the speakers and then scatter all over and you hear the various instruments playing chaotically, as if looking there way back to the original path. It is very well orchestrated and so well played that I could think there's no score here at all and they're just randomly playing (they might be, who knows?). They then proceed to assemble all the pieces back together and carry on in their original path and the music gets more and more energetic, becomes more and more forceful and insistent and moves forward in a very "cubic" structured manner to the crescendo-like ending. The ending track On Tuesdays is a more peaceful song, with a nice keyboards playing pattern. It goes on cyclically and maintains the same level to the end and it is probably the only track here which remains constant and doesn't evolve (aside from the sax joining in for a few blurred fuzzy improve-like lines towards the end).

Their music splendidly combines the intensity of rock with the beauty and appealing nature of a classical lineup. The mix of the two as Rational Diet does it is simply astounding. The words Chamber Rock are probably the best description for this music, since they do exactly that. The music they create is diverse, taking from many influences, and will appeal to fans of the aforementioned bands above and fans of this style of music overall. The musicianship is spectacular as is the development of each track and the beauty of each theme presented on all the pieces on the album. The album also presents their manner of being succinct and to the point and not to overdo and prolong segments or whole tracks that do not need it. They do not fall into the needless trap of creating long pieces that tire the listener and for no reason. Knowing how to create an appealing piece of music is an art, and knowing how to not ruin it (by over-doing it) is the other side of this coin. Rational Diet seem to know this "secret". This album, to me, puts the band on the top of today's active bands in this scene. This album is one of the best I've heard this year and is quickly becoming an all-time favourite.
Get it!

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