To get a sense of what this album is about it helps to start with the cover art: a lovingly hand-drawn rendering of dark fairy tale imagery. A figure carrying a large bag steals away past a lonely cottage, above this we see a trio of naked women dancing on a cloud, while nearby a wolf stalks around, silhouetted by a full moon. All of this is foregrounded by the head of an old man, his head shrouded by wild gray hair and beard, his mouth slightly open to reveal small fangs. He’d be scary if his features weren’t so weirdly cherubic. The whole thing evokes a sense of primitive magic and sinister intent, but, ya know, with a sense of humor.
Šljahtic Zavalnja, Abo Bełarus u Fantastyčnyh Apavjadannjah, a recent dispatch from Prague-based experimental music label NoiseUp, is a collaboration between Russian collective Mecizand (‘Forest Master’), and Belarusian collective Simulacross ( 🤷), along with a few guest musicians, most notably vocalist Irina Hlushets. The album title, which roughly translates to ‘Aristocrat logjam or Belarus in fantastic stories’ (thanks, Google!), is taken from a work by 19th century Belarusian writer Jan Barszczewski, and for all I know the album depicts the narrative of its namesake. But since I don’t speak Belarusion (or Russian, or whatever) I can only talk about the journey that the sounds take me on.
And what a journey! This isn’t a collection of songs so much as a progression through sonic environments, a disorienting haze of scattered hand percussion, dark ambient synths, atonal flutes, spoken and sung human voices, and a smattering of other instruments and sound effects. Listening to this album feels like being dropped off in a haunted house halfway across the world: first we witness a witch singing to herself over a bubbling cauldron, before we wander into a meeting hall where some dark ritual begins to take place, squealing animal sounds give way to the pained heavy breathing of some monster, then a cock crows and a woman starts speaking and then singing as a hypnotic dance begins. Then… well you get the idea.
And it stays interesting because in its own way this is, like, super fun music. I can only imagine this one-off weirdo musical collective having a blast making this album, mashing together spooky drones with folksy fiddle playing, pained moaning with bluesy harmonica, incantatory singing with groovy electric guitar riffs. Even if I have no idea what’s going on story-wise that sense of boundless experimentation and joyful discovery is what comes through. Music truly is the universal language, amirite???