Krai is Russian for “border.” In Russia, there are seven krais, sort of the equivalent of counties in one of the US states. Those regions and their traditional music inspire the new album, simply titled Krai, by Moscow-born, Alaska-raised art-rocker Olga Bell. All but one of her songs here are completely through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses don’t repeat. The lyrics – in Russian – are a rapidfire mashup of ancient plainchant, folk tales and original, sometimes politically charged lyrics co-written by Bell and her mom, a former Soviet broadcaster. The music is rhythmically tricky art-rock, its indie classical flourishes interpolated amidst long, pensively vamping interludes driven by a kinetic rock rhythm section, with lingering, austere electric guitar, vibraphone, strings, woodwinds and Bell’s own intricately overdubbed six-part vocal harmonies. Bell’s often labyrinthine vocal arrangements employ a lot of close harmonies to enhance the otherworldliness, although she doesn’t use the microtones common to some Balkan and Russian music. Bell and her ensemble play the album release show for this one at 8 PM on April 28 at le Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.
The opening track’s ominous art-rock intro quickly morphs into a Slavic chorale, then it moves back to offcenter cinematics, the vibraphone’s incisiveness contrasting with the opaqueness around it. Bell winds it up with a big crescendo of vocals and then a whoop. Where the first track swoops upward as it gets going, the second swoops downward, with the vocals, a jaw harp, steady bass and a practically mocking high cello line over a quavery, sustained drone that sounds like ebow guitar. Track three, Perm Krai (each title has a corresponding region) has a trickily rhythmic, shuffling trip-hop groove, something akin to Sigur Ros taking a stab at mathrock. The fourth cut, Stavropol Krai has Bell doing a call-and-response with her own multitracks, then the band lights up a spare, sparse theme with jaunty accents from flute and guitar. It ends with what appears to be a sarcastic military march.
Krasnoyarsk Krai, with its icy vibraphone flourishes, dense layers of vocals and organ, is the album’s creepiest track. Zabaikalsky Krai begins as a simililarly eerie bell melody and then works its way through an ominous synth interlude and then hints at a darkly leaping mathrock theme – it’s the album’s most ethereal song. With its weirdly processed keys and vocals, Khabarovsk Krai is the quirkiest, a Slavic dance dressed up as Radiohead.
The final track, Kamchatka Krai sounds like a Russian version of the Creatures, towering walls of vocals punctuated by big bass chords, pounding drums, screechy synth and the occasional swipe from the guitar or electric piano. Who is the audience for this? Maybe fans of Dirty Projectors, with whom Bell has worked extensively. Otherwise, fans of the stranger side of art-rock (and Bjork, and postrock, and mathrock, and accessible indie classical ensembles like Ymusic) will find a lot to sink their ears into here. It’s a long, strange trip.