Brooklyn instrumentalists Barbez are one of the world’s great art-rock bands. Guitarist/frontman Dan Kaufman blends reeds, strings, vibraphone and theremin into his frequently haunting, sometimes austere, sometimes frenetic, historically-informed, Old World European-influenced songs. Their previous album, Force of Light, set death-obsessed poems by Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan to music. They’ve got a new album, Bella Ciao, inspired by the unique sounds of Roman Jewish music and the bravery of the Italian underground against the Nazis in World War II. They’ve also got a show coming up on May 22 at around 10 at Trans-Pecos (the old Silent Barn space), 915 Wykoff Ave. in Ridgewood, L train to Halsey St.; cover is $10.
The new album – recorded and mixed by dark rock maven Martin Bisi – is a suite, a brooding, wounded, cinematic theme and variations. It opens and quickly builds to a propulsive, trickily rhythmic, darkly bustling overture over Peter Lettre’s tightly looping bass and the tumbling drums of Sway Machinery’s John Bollinger (whose echoey, terse clusters throughout this album drive the menace factor through the roof). The second track juxtaposes Peter Hess’ insistent clarinet and Danny Tunick’s vibraphone within a wistful waltz that builds to a gallop and then back.
Kaufman’s creepy tremolo guitar fuels the third track, morphing out of dub-inflected noir ambience to a lushly marching sway that evokes Big Lazy with orchestration. On the following cut, Fiona Templeton narrates an English translation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini poem The Resistance and Its Light over a soaring backdrop to illustrate an angst-ridden hope-against-hope theme. Then she does the same with Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, on Mizmor Leasaf, the eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir piece that’s the high point of the album.
After a brief, austere vocal interlude, Kaufman deftly builds a Twin Peaksian theme out of Lettre’s ominous introductory chromatics on Keter Ittenu, then does the same, building to a frantic punk pulse and then pulling back, on Kamti Beashmoret. The title track, a new arrangement of the famous Italian WWII resistance anthem – sung by Templeton in its original Italian – sets a trickly rhythmic verse up against soaringly waltzing choruses fueled by Catherine McRae’s violin and Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin, then a hypnotically psychedelic interlude. The narrative reaches a peak with Umevi Goel, rising from a brooding violin/clarinet passage to an understated danse macabre, Bollinger’s ominous rumble fueling its many dynamic shifts. -The album ends with a sad, rainy-day violin-and-piano duet, a vivid after-battle scenario. This plaintive, evocative masterpiece might well be the high point of the band’s career; watching them evolve since their begininngs in the late 90s mining a stylized Tom Waits vibe has been a lot of fun. And they’re just as good live as they are on album.