Dalava reinvent dark, often grim, centuries-old Slovak and Czech folk tunes as intense, dynamically shifting psychedelic rock. Guitarist Aram Bajakian is arguably the greatest lead player ever to pass through Lou Reed’s band: only the late Robert Quine and Mick Ronson compare. Bajakian also plays with numerous other outfits including lavish Hungarian folk/art-rock band the Glass House Ensemble.
His wife, singer Julia Ulehla, is the scion of an important Moravian musicological legacy. Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a colleague of Leos Janacek, was a major player in that discipline and as she tells it, a pretty amazing guy. His exhaustive fieldwork and research would make a good movie all by themselves. You can read a lot more about that in the extensive liner notes to the latest album The Book of Transfigurations, streaming at Bandcamp.
Bajakian isn’t coming through town this month to play this amazing, haunting music, but he will be at the Stone on both August 19 and 20 at 8:30 PM with John Zorn’s quasi-horror-surf band, Abraxas; cover is $20.
Like the duo’s 2015 debut album, this latest one radically reimagines a series of picturesque tunes from the family collection.Its central theme is change: as Ulehla puts it, “Girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into soldier, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”
The album is bookended by mid-century field recordings of her grandfather Jiri singing with spare cimbalom accompaniment by Antoš Frolka. The senior Ulehla’s voice is raw, strong and impassioned as he sings of departure and no return: a soldier off to war, possibly. The band – Bajakian on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, Colin Cowan on bass and Dylan van der Schyff on drums – then make relentlessly prowling Velvets rock out of it.
The album’s second song, Grass, offers delicate, airy contrast, a vignette that captures the literally crushing poverty faced by peasants across Europe for thousands of years. Bajakian plays jagged minor-key slashes over a careening, bolero-ish beat behind Ulehla’s accusatory wail in The Rocks Began to Crumble, a soldier sent off to war bitterly telling his true love that she might as well marry somebody else.
Lee’s cello builds distantly claustrophobic ambience in Iron Bars, Iron Lock, illustrating an age-old mother-daughter conflict: mom wants to keep her kid away from the guys. The Bloody Wall allusively recounts a murder victim haunting the scene of the crime over lushly crescendoing, anthemic art-rock. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous melodies, the strings matching the intricate Czech ornamentation of Ulehla’s voice.
That narrative is echoed with a more spare, atmospherically crescendoing approach in You Used to Look Like a Lion, a gruesome lament for a dying soldier. Then the band laps into Red Violet, a stormy, syncopated 1-chord jam in 7/8 time. Bajakian and Ulehla slip back into the shadows for Souling, a love song set to an uneasy fingerpicked acoustic backdrop.
The album’s starkest, most riveting song is War, Ulehla’s wounded melismas soaring over Bajakian’s sparse, lingering minor-key broken chords and Lee’s washes of cello: it’s another vivid soldier-going-off-to-war scenario. Then Lee and Ulehla flicker through the anguished medieval magic realism of Mother Gave Away Her Daughter,
He’s Bringing Something For Me, a veiled account of love and abandonment, has an even more sepulchral atmosphere that winds out with an ominous rumble. The terse murder ballad Carnival is awash in creepy wind-chime ripples and Ulehla’s phantasmic vocals. The album’s closing cut, Sell Us Your Shirt mashes up the vocals of grandfather and granddaughter Ulehla over the cimbalom, a cruel encounter with thieves who’ll literally steal the shirt off an unlucky peasant’s back. How little things have changed over the centuries: this magical, mysterious, imagistic album will entrance anybody who likes dark, brooding music: you don’t have to speak Czech to appreciate it, although that helps.