Written by: Dave Cantrell
Whereas we’d much rather forego the inclination to cite likely – or even unintentional – influences on the sound and style of any given band and/or record, those of us tasked with bringing you news and reviews of what’s the latest and greatest in the post-punk world, in most respects, have little choice. For one, our tendency to bend toward the ardent in our response to what we’re hearing trips us into the comparison trap reflexively. Like any of you, that very passion for the form has led to something of an encyclopedic volume of references begging our comparative attention, and since our job is to spread the word of the yet-heard, a few referential guideposts helps shape the discussion. And for two, relatedly, since emerging from the dogmatic flames of pure punk in 1977, post-punk in its many flights and splinters has never fully abated, whether the torch is being held bravely aloft in historically lean times (For Against in the late 80’s early 90’s, for instance) or, as now, being passed among eager partisans like a lightning-strike contagion spreading feverishly to nearly every corner of the world (I’m waiting on word of the first angular, Manchester-obsessed band to emerge from the African continent; shoot me a message if there’s something I’m missing), which makes the drawing of parallels almost biologically impossible to resist. All that being the case, and with the lot of us carrying around a dangerously teetering, over-stocked darkwave etc jukebox where most people have brains, it can become a matter of the most vexing – and distracting – challenge when a record tweaks what in practice is a rarely-touched synaptic flashpoint that becomes teasingly further out of reach the harder we try to identify it. Might be a few tracks in – or, lord help us, upon second listen – before we find it, sitting brightly neglected in some dark dusty corner. When it happens like that, as it did for me with Barcelona-based band Belgrado’s exuberantly confident new album Obraz (Image), you can bet you’re going to hear about it.
That hunt nagged at me from the start as “Dalej” begins its glorious layer-accruing life with a moment of dubby hesitation before the sharp, synth-treated drum pulls in a staccato’d reverb of guitar atop a nimble 1980 bassline then the beat-modulated intonations of singer Patrycja Proniewska (singing in her native Polish) holding sway in a way both bold and captivating, continued unabated through the (again) dub-inflected “1000 Spektali” that tumbles forward to relentlessly absorbing effect, the vocals once more playing in and around the track’s addictive rhythms, and only deepened once the lively arcing dynamics of “Wlater” got immediately under my skin, making it difficult to resist breaking out in some sinuous coil of a madman dance in the middle of the bridge I was walking across at the time. It wasn’t, I hesitate to say, until the syncopated insistence of seventh track “Nierealne Realne Spoleczenstwo,” the rhythm section (Jonathan Sirit drums; Renzo Narvaes bass) locked in like Burnham/Allen in their prime, guitarist Fernando ‘Fergu’ Marquez sparking off them in a maniacally concise assault, Patrycja’s clipped vocals full of both authority and a fierce empathy, that the a-ha! hit: this is the Au Pairs reanimated in whole new – and more aggressively embroidered – cloth. ‘Of course,’ I thought, ‘how could I have missed it?’ That snapping clarity bursting with compression, the daring air of systemic injustices confronted (that would ultimately lead Lesley Woods to becoming a barrister), all of it backed up by an adeptly carved groove that parses with an artful precision the delicate difference between the trenchant and the ecstatic.
Agile and inspired, the band, as happened with Brazil’s Escarlatina Obsessiva at the top of the year, have taken what was already a powerful grasp of the ‘what works’ and exploded upward and outward to a point marvelously past expectation. “Na Ten Czas,” on the heels of “Nierealne..,” maintains a five-and-a-half minute spell of immersive noise hypnosis that should possibly only be available by prescription, “Raz Dwa”‘s dazzling, layered insanity of guitar and hyper-actively adroit bassline drives that addictive post-punk pulse (I know you know the one I mean) so deep into the cranium it ends up pulling the heart into the melee, the brief (and wordless) “Pasáz” can’t decide if it’s agitated or an edgy kind of buoyant so figures out a way to be both simultaneously before “Fragmenty Swiata” closes proceedings on a darker – if no less lively – note, something of a somber swoon presiding even as Fergu is as busy as Ritalin over every measure.
The key, the secret ingredient to Obraz, beyond the passion and pure verve of the musicianship, beyond the embarrassment of hooks that come in a breathless rush song after song (save the wobbly atmospherics of “Krajobraz” that serves as a sort of palate-cleansing intermission smack in the middle of the album), is nuance, lurking everywhere with a generous subtlety. How those echoed, Strummery guitar lines early in “1000 Spektali” get fed through a synth and evaporate into oblivion, how the drums sound alternately as if they’ve developed some hybrid approach called ‘Euro dancehall’ as on the chrome-punk stylee of “Dalej” or, as on “Nierealne Realne Spoleczenstwo,” stick to the deft complexities like some damn post-punk Charlie Watts; how Patrycja’s vocals, all over but especially on “Na Ten Czas,” blend with such an integral haunt into the mix that the words become the rhythm become the words. Clearly Belgrado has learned to use the studio to their advantage in a way that will be innately familiar to any of us that were being floored by the sound of record after record in 1979-80, and yes the Au Pairs among them (along with Wire and Gang of Four and hell it’s a long list) but I’m also thinking this: the Pop Group has been in the studio with Dennis Bovell – again; he produced Y – and Hank Shocklee this summer with a new album due in October, and if they happen to be looking for vibrant young touring partners, well…there’s this band I know that’s playing with a different sense and sensuality that have just released what may well be the most potent post-punk album of the year. Here, have a listen: