Legendary/Obscure Klezmer Art-Rock Band From North of the Border Plays a Rare Two-Night Stand in Williamsburg
Back in the zeros, Black Ox Orkestar emerged as the klezmer spinoff of Godspeed You Black Emperor. They put out a couple of records and then by the middle of the decade they were finished. Fast forward to 2022: they’re back, with an absolutely haunting, otherworldly new album, Everything Returns – streaming at Bandcamp – and a two-night stand at Union Pool on Dec 16 and 17 for slightly more than $24 (guessing that cash customers may have round up a few cents to $25 at the door). Avant garde trumpet titan Matana Roberts opens the first night at 8; as of today, it looks like Black Ox Orkestar have the second night to themselves.
They open the new record with a gorgeously somber old liturgical theme, Tish Nign, pianist Scott Gilmore punching in hard as violinist Jessica Moss and clarinetist Gabriel Levine float and shiver eerily and Godspeed bassist Thierry Amar maintains a distant, hypnotic, saturnine pulse.
That pulse picks up with a cinematic tension in Perpetual Peace, perfectly encapsulizing this band’s appeal: epic sweep, haunting minor melodies. The sound is much larger than you would expect from a four-piece augmented by Pierre-Guy Blanchard’s terse drumming; Levine’s multitracked bass clarinet along with his standard issue-model are an especially tasty touch.
Likewise, Gilmore blends pitchblende piano and cimbalom textures on Oysgeforn, the plaintively drifting introduction to Bessarabian Hora. As the pace picks up, Craig Pedersen’s trumpet takes centerstage in a regal, Middle Eastern-flavored melody over the twin-tuba drive of Julie Houle and Julie Richard. From there the band follow a ghostly segue into Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav, another absolutely gorgeous, haunting theme awash in low resonances and fleeting riffs from throughout the band as Moss and her bandmates exchange Yiddish lyrics.
There’s a similar sepulchral quality to Skotschne, Gilmore’s stately cimbalom over Levine’s gentle acoustic guitar and the soaring web of strings overhead. It wouldn’t be out of place as an instrumental on Neko Case’s Blacklisted album.
Gilmore shifts back to piano over buzzy, drony clarinet for Viderkol (Echo), a spare art-rock waltz that wouldn’t be out of place in the Botanica catalog. Epigenetik, a spare, angst-fueled, wintry guitar-and-strings ballad, is much the same.
The skies brighten for Moldovan Zhok, a puffing, rustically orchestrated, somewhat vaudevillian-flavored diptych. The band wind up this improbable and often spellbindingly beautiful record with a hushed, guardedly hopeful nocturne, Lamed-Vovnik.