Black Ox Orkestar
ne of the most exciting trends in recent indie music is the neo-Balkan movement. Bands like Gogol Bordello and Beirut are, in their own individual ways, crafting versions of traditional Balkan forms that reinvent and rejuvenate music that is already lively and unpredictable. As with any movement, however, there are purists. On first listen, Black Ox Orkestar would seem to be such a band.
But appearances are deceiving. Sure, the group favors the leaden-footed stomp tempo on nearly each track, but would purists really allow the snake-charmer melody of “Dobriden” or the massed orchestra of “Tsvey Taybelakh” to appear on their record? The confusion about Black Ox exists because they uniquely stand in two camps at once. They’re both teachers and students.
For the uninitiated, the group offers up unvarnished takes like the Balkan dance “Ratsekr Grec” or the New World stomp “Az Vey Dem Tatn.” But far more often the group acts in the role of rapt student, grafting elements such as improv (“Violin Duet”), drone music (the chanting of opener “Bukharian), or simply the intuitive post-rock touches that (most) of the band has gained from their work in Silver Mt. Zion (“Golem”).
Granted, it’s not terribly exciting in a formal sense (Gogol’s punk or Beirut’s indie references are non-existent here, this is a band that couches their innovations within the song structures—not on them), but what Black Ox do with this seemingly simple material is compelling. It’s authentic sounding, for one. Mistakes are left in: the violins hesitate, the phlegm in the lead singer’s voice becomes an instrument itself. Black Ox try to balance the primacy of the live take with the strict compositions that they have imposed upon themselves. This balance is extremely important in songs like “Ikh Ken Tsvey Zayn,” for example, where the tension is unbearable for nearly four minutes before a theme coalesces and is finally fleshed out.
Unlike their neo-Balkan contemporaries, Black Ox Orkestar are working hard to keep the feel and sound of the past alive. By judiciously adding elements of their own musical pasts (the aforementioned post-rock of Silver Mt. Zion, the free jazz of Friends of Cush, etc.) within most of the compositions here, the result is something new, but subtly so. For those sick of the frenetic Bordello or the blatant cultural tourism of Beirut, it’s a welcome relief.