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Hala Strana - These Villages

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Artist: Hala Strana

Album: These Villages

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Nov. 29, 2004

Steven R. Smith's third album under the Hala Strana name, These Villages continues to delve into eastern European influences, blending varied instrumentation and atmosphere with a tendency toward droning experimentalism. The result lies somewhere between his minimalist project Thuja, raga-folk like Six Organs of Admittance, and Current 93 if they hailed from Hungary.

After getting his start with the sorely-missed cosmic rock band Mirza, Smith immediately branched out with a series of gorgeous, wintry solo albums and the quietly spooky Thuja (with Loren Chasse, Glenn Donaldson, and Rob Reger). After several solo releases, Hala Strana was born to focus on the true folk music of eastern Europe.

This album includes three traditionals, from Latvia, Hungary, and Azerbaijan. While I'm certainly not familiar with the originals, that they blend seamlessly with Smith's originals means he has either adapted them adeptly, or his originals are true to the spirit of the regions in which he has found inspiration.

Regardless of inspiration, what's important is that the music feels like it has deep roots. Instruments such as psaltery, oud, bouzouki, bul bul tarang, and hurdy gurdy could easily be used simply for their cachet: a "look at me, I'm down with ethnology" attitude. That's certainly not the case here. These instruments serve the song, not the other way around.

From "Wood Scree" to the final splashy drones of "For G. Mesmer" Smith crafts a series of musical snapshots, like looking through an antique photo album. "Wood Scree" serves as a good example, with droning background sounds and plucked strings that ring and blend to create a shifting palette, a delicate tracery of melodies amidst a weight of melancholy.

Some of the songs feel less complete. "Dressed in Rushes" is so sparse that its discordantly squeaking scrapes are too formless, and in the end aimless. "Fear of the Land" is all drone and creak, and lacks the melodic component needed to give it personality.

But songs like "The Great Season" – building into what seems like the soundtrack for a distant festival – and the gorgeous woodwind melody of "Nepdal Tarogaton" – as it floats over low moaning bass – are where the album truly succeeds. When the almost-atonal melodies Smith has garnered from eastern influences are brought to the fore, the results cohere into smoky, breathing songs that feel like audio history. When instrumentals can tell stories, that's when you know they're real.

By Mason Jones

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