Olga Bell: Krai
New Amsterdam Records

The unusual character of Olga Bell's Krai is significantly exacerbated by the fact that its nine settings are sung entirely in the New York-based composer's native Russian. Consequently, for any listener lacking fluency in the language, the forty-minute recording will likely sound all the more different from anything else one has heard. Delving into unusual territory is nothing out of the ordinary for the always daring New Amsterdam Records imprint, and Bell's release, her second album and first large-scale composition, does nothing to alter that reputation.

A concept album of a unique kind, Krai (a Russian word meaning edge, brink, border, frontier, or hinterland) is structured as nine songs, one for each of the nine territories—krais, if you prefer—making up present-day Russia. Her focus, however, isn't on the major cities associated with these areas but instead the lands themselves, and their towns and inhabitants. Such a move reaps musical dividends as it frees her to range widely on stylistic and instrumental grounds. Bell, presenting her multi-layered voice as a dramatic vocal ensemble, sings texts drawn from multiple sources, traditional and liturgical among them (lyrics for six of the songs were created by Bell with her mother Marina).

Despite the emphasis on Russia in its subject matter and vocal presentation, Krai is a Western project, too. Recorded at at a Rhode Island studio, the songs' arrangements feature cello, electric guitar, electric bass, pitched drums, synthesizer, mallet percussion, and electronics, and Bell herself straddles multiple worlds: though she was born in Moscow and raised in Alaska, she's a Brooklyn-based composer and classical pianist who not only issues solo music but also creates electronic music with British musician Tom Vek under the Nothankyou name and joined Dirty Projectors in 2012 as a keyboardist and singer. A child prodigy (at twelve, she performed an original composition for piano and orchestra with the Anchorage Symphony), Bell moved to NYC in 2005 and began experimenting with laptop production and self-recording.

To describe the album as a compelling listen hardly captures how arresting its soundworld is. In the opening “Krasnodar Krai,” Bell declaims her lyrics with an aggressive force reminiscent of Bjork before a rich, choir-like presentation appears, itself reminiscent of the unearthly wail heard on the Bulgarian folk song album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (initially released in 1975 on Disques Cellier and re-issued in 1987 on Nonesuch). “Altai Krai” follows its opening wordless wail with an arresting arrangement that sees her low-pitched murmur accompanied by cello, percussion, jaw harp, and a haunting siren texture, while the later “Zabaikalsky Krai,” whether by accident or design, calls to mind the choral soundworld of Steve Reich's Tehillim. By comparison, “Perm Krai” is conventionalized by the presence of a rambunctious drum groove, even if the song's otherwise as unconventional in its vocal presentation as anything else on the album. As strange as it might sound, Krai even manages to work into its presentation rhythms with a funk and post-punk feel. Ultimately, the most fascinating thing about Krai isn't so much its fusion of Eastern and Western elements but rather how seamlessly it manifests an uncompromisingly experimental sensibility while at the same time grounding itself in a Russian musical tradition spanning hundreds of years.

May 2014