Kries Selo Na Okuke/Village Tracks
Riverboat Records (www.worldmusic.net)
Review by Lee Blackstone
Kries is a legendary Croatian folk-rock band that has thankfully resurfaced with Selo Na Okuke/Village Tracks, eight years after their previous album Kocijani (2008). Understanding Kries' message of solidarity and unity is essential to their mission. The band formed after the raging of the Balkan War in the 1990s, and the musicians that comprise Kries are drawn from countries caught up in - or touched by - the conflict that engulfed the Balkan region.
The founder of Kries is Mojmir Novaković. Novaković, like many musicians at the forefront of a modern revival of traditional folk music, sought to infuse the songs of Croatia and the Balkans with a progressive twist. Accompanying Novaković in Kries are folk luminaries such as Andor Vegh (a Balkan music expert) on bagpipes and flute, and multi-instrumentalist Ivo Letunic on lijerica (a three-stringed, bowed instrument), and the Serbian gusle (a one-stringed, bowed instrument). There is a roaring percussive section, comprised of Ivan Levačić on drums, and Krešimir Oreški on percussive instruments including the djembe. The group is fleshed out with Erol Zejnilović on guitar, and Konrad Lovrenčić on bass. As a result, Kries combines traditional folk music instrumentation alongside the elements of a rock band – and as Selo Na Okuke illustrates, the band's influences range far and wide, from minimalist composition, motorik rock, to post-punk.
Several elements to Kries' unique mix of sounds must be mentioned. First are the vocals: the band often sings chorus and rounds in unison, and the overall effect is hypnotic and incantatory. Second, there is the deep, sonorous voice of Novaković, and he has a commanding presence on each song. Third are the moments when the traditional instruments cut through the mix – the bagpipes, in particular, soar above the rhythmic patterns being laid down by the group. And fourth, there is no denying the relentless percussion through the album's repertoire. The percussion invests the traditional songs with such heft that Kries sound like a soundtrack for ecstatic Balkan rituals. Throughout, Zejnilović's guitar also offers start-stop momentum and slashing phrases that create a sense of punk urgency; the collision of traditional and modern music is blown wide open.
All the constituent parts of Kries are evident on the leadoff track, “Selo Na Okuke,” seen in here in a live performance:
Novaković has written that this song is about a 'village with curvy roads,' which – while located in local feeling – can easily be extrapolated outwards to include any large metropolitan city of the world. In essence, Kries envisions the beauty of the village as an attainable global vision.
Another highlight is “Ivo se šeće,” a song that is situated around the birth of St. John the Baptist, which in the Balkans is the time for the 'summer Christmas,' a time marked by bonfires. As Kries' name translates to 'bonfire' from an ancient Croatian dialect, the selection is particularly apt. The video for the song adds an important political context, as much of the footage is situated within a Syrian refugee camp. The juxtaposition of the young children and adults being cared for in the camp, combined with Novaković intoning the traditional lyric “All is well, all will be well” is powerfully affecting:
The album calls up many pastoral images, such as “Sestrica Pavlova” (Pavlov's sister). The young woman is grooming her horses, which will be utilized to escort her brother to his love, in a clover meadow. “Sito To” is another song commemorating love and the continuance of life, with freshly cut wheat being brought to a wedding party. “Zelena Lipa,” or “Green Lime Tree,” offers a different perspective on relationships; here, the female protagonist sits beneath a burning green lime tree, while birds cry overhead. Despite facing the prospect of marriage, the woman of the folk tune must be consoled by her sister.
“Skoči Kolo” approaches the listener from a distance, with handclaps and bowed fiddle, before settling into a repetitive groove that befits a circle dance. The song refers again to the time of the summer solstice, and that the sun 'jumps three times' on that day. “Oj Lado Lado” invokes Lado, a Slavic deity, while offering blessings on a house and its inhabitants in return for the refreshment of water. “Dodole” likewise involves the symbol of water, and the song is another ancient Slavic incantation for rain to help the crops. As with much of Kries' use of traditional folk songs, the meaning of “Dodole” resonates with the band's hopes for a renewed, better world. Lyrically, what makes Kries' songs so interesting is that the band does not shy away from the laden symbols of the traditional lyrics, but they allow for their strange imagery and rural references to connote larger landscapes of human interaction.
Listeners would be hard-pressed to find comparisons to Kries' music. The virile male singing and chanting reminds me of both Georgian liturgical choirs, and the Norwegian chanting of the defunct pagan world-music band Ym:Stammen. The percussive foundation of the songs recall the thunder of Brazil's Nação Zumbi. Different traditions, to be sure, but perhaps indicative of the diversity of the global village demanded and celebrated by Kries. Yet there is no question that Kries are purveyors of a totally unique sound; Kries goes beyond categorization, making Selo Na Okuke/Village Tracks a document that burns with an ageless fire. – Lee Blackstone