April 23, 2024

BLACK OX ORKESTAR – ‘EVERYTHING RETURNS’ – “Deep in melancholy as well as joy”

CONSTELLATION      2nd December 2022

A haunting album that has been played over and over since it arrived. Deep in melancholy as well as joy, this draws on Eastern European Jewish roots. Ashkenazi Klemzer music. There is a theatrical, dramatic flair, a sense of the between-the-wars Berlin alternative cabarets, a sense of village communal gatherings, a sweeping immersion in feeling.

The instrumental opener sets out the melancholy but ‘Perpetual Peace’ follows with chanson stylings, sung in Yiddish. Most of the album is in Yiddish, with occasional English. It’s an unusual creation and something this Canadian collective specialise in. Fifteen years on from the two albums they released in the mid-2000s, it’s a surprise – but surprise is what this group does. Sharing members with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, the band have solo careers, like Jessica Moss’ electronically treated violin albums. Using upright bass, cymbalon, piano, clarinet, guitar and violin as well as Scott Gilmore’s deeply felt baritone vocals, it is a small band but a rich sound. It feels Eastern European, particularly when ‘Oysegeforn Bessarabian Hora’ kicks in its village hall dance-steps, but has aspects of the Jewish diaspora’s heritage in Middle Eastern / North African beats or in Greek-Moldovan steps but is also the communal thump that Tom Waits aims for in his stompers.

Self-taught through tapes from the local music library, they have captured a feeling and it’s a great one. It honours the diaspora and the wanderings brought on by oppression and genocide, while celebrating a specific culture. The first track they laid down on reuniting, ‘Mizrakh mi ma’arav’, captures the magic – sad, slow, heavy on clarinet, with Gilmore’s resonant tones alongside Moss’ backing vocals and some lonely violin. The pieces aches and drips with a sense of identity seeking a home. The band say; “Everything lost can return, but in a different form.”

The centrepiece is the majestic ‘Viderkol’ (‘Echo’), sung in English and Yiddish, expressing a loss sad and deep, yet beautiful to the soul, a longing to treasure. Aspects of this are in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, with a degree of relishing the pains of the heart. “You sound the same, but so far away”; the band channel sounds from long ago, bend them to modern sensibilities and show us how the feelings never went away. At a time of resurgent movement thanks to war and other refugee triggers, these feelings are ever-present in scattered peoples.

This is not revivalist, this is reworking and, while the instrumentals are traditional, a number of songs are Gilmore’s modern pieces. I don’t speak Yiddish but when I hear a word like “fascistik”, I know these songs belong to today. “One crack in the temple wall, one crack and everything falls”.

This is an epically mournful yet redemptive and celebratory album, creating a mood last captured in this way over a decade ago.



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