Beirut - The Gulag Orkestar
When you hear a piece of music for the first time that just haunts you, that sends shivers down your spine, you realise that this is why you listen to music in the first place. The first time I heard Beirut's Gulag Orkestar was one of these times. An amazingly beautiful piece of music that, in equal measures, conjured up echoes of the past and images of the future... In my occasional "Across The Atlantic" articles, I wrote about Beirut back in June as a record that just blew me away, something truly original that I'd not been able to stop playing. Now it's received an official UK release, we've even been blessed with the inclusion of The Lon Gisland EP as a bonus disc.
Those of you that may have missed the internet buzz around this album will need to know that Beirut is one man band, 19 year old Zach Condon, who discovered his European past whilst travelling when he dropped out of college. Whilst The Gulag Orkestar is a completely DIY event, it sounds like a Balkan gypsy band - full of violins, cellos, ukuleles, mandolins, glockenspiels, drums, tambourines, congas, organs, pianos, clarinets and accordions. A mesh of beautifully arranged noise that strikes up images of the Berlin Wall and cold Russian winters. There's a general feeling of melancholy prevalent through the whole record, but there are moments of true joy. Postcards From Italy is one of the most beautiful songs I've heard all year with gentle ukulele intro, Condon's quivering vocals delicate and yet powerful as the marching drums kick it. The lyrics conjure up scenes and events to make it feel like an actual picture postcard. Brandenburg cracks along under the beat of military drums and mandolin, trumpets screeching in the background and drenching the whole song in an atmospheric drunken haze.
Whilst steeped in the past, this is still a record that looks forward, both musically and lyrically. Scenic World has a backing track that sounds straight off a Casio keyboard whilst a whirl of organ and clarinet revolve around it. Then there's Condon's voice again, reminding me of Scott Walker in it's controlled delivery, it just sends shivers down my spine, another instrument in it's own right, it's just so clear and yet sounds like it was recorded 40 years ago with it's quaking and quivering delivery.
The inclusion of The Lon Gisland EP is a welcome bonus. A collection of new material, it shows Condon hasn't run out of ideas and, although these new songs build on the same instruments and backing as the earlier materials, the songs are more polished and feel more complete. Elephant Gun may be related to Brandenburg but it feels more positive, Condon's voice humming and quivering over the mandolin and trumpets. My Family's Role In The World Revolution is a great party tune, full of piano's, strings and brass, it feels like a jam session gone mad in the studio - it feels so full of energy that you can do nothing but tap your feet and want to join in dancing.
This is, without doubt, one of the albums of the year. An album showing vision that's unclouded by fashion or current trends - it's beautifully arranged music steeped in the past. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it's not intrinsically difficult music, it's just different music. In Condon, we might have found something very special indeed.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:57:46