Dálava: The Book of Transfigurations

Often sounding more like the kind of thing one would expect to see on Constellation than Songlines, given its raw, sometimes avant-punk spirit, Dálava, the brainchild of musical and life partners Julia Úlehla (vocals) and Aram Bajakian (guitars), draws from Moravian (Czech) folk songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century for inspiration. Picking up where the group's self-titled 2014 release (Sanasar Records) left off, this forty-eight-minute sophomore effort is as personal as a collection could possibly be.

Bringing invaluable clarity to the musical content is a thirty-six-page booklet that includes a wealth of background information about the project and in-depth song commentary by Julia. We learn, for example, that the album's songs were first collected by her great-grandfather Vladimir Úlehla (1888-1947), a botanist and amateur ethnomusicologist, in his home village and published posthumously in book form; that he regarded folk songs as living organisms is borne out by the duo's inspired re-imaginings of these traditional Moravian folk songs (said book, incidentally, was first published in 1949 and reprinted in 2008), and we also learn that the older man's voice heard on two of the thirteen songs is Julia's grandfather Jirí, his voice preserved on recordings made in the ‘50s.

Though stylistically Dálava's intense songs inhabit folk and rock spaces, traces of jazz surface also, attributable in part to the involvement of cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, names that should be well-familiar to Drip Audio and Songlines fans; as integral to the album's sprawling soundworld are the contributions of Tyson Naylor (piano, accordion, organ) and Colin Cowan (basses). Critical to the album is its live feel, which Úlehla and Bajakian achieved by limiting the number of takes to two or three and doing very little editing. Little mistakes might be present, but they make the music feel alive. Central to the album's effect is Julia's singing, which alternates between aggression and fragility in keeping with the music's demands. As she herself notes, “almost every song tells the story of some kind of transfiguration—girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into solder, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”

There are moments where the music dissonantly roars like some Sonic Youth side-project. Bajakian describes “Dyž sem já šel pres hory” (The rocks began to crumble), for example, as being driven by a Reggaeton beat, but the tune swaggers with atonal punk fire as much as anything, and to that end the vibe's amplified by the band's fractured playing and Julia's vocal, which in its wail might remind listeners of a certain age of someone like Yoko Ono or Lydia Lunch. And while “Vyletela holubicka” (The bloody wall) is initially pitched at a quiet level, it builds in dynamics and intensity until it reaches a climactic roar reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. As powerful as the aggressive songs are, the ballads are even more memorable. Particularly affecting are “Co ste si mamicko za dum stavjat dali” (Iron bars, iron lock) and “Vydala máti” (Mother gave away her daughter), moving ballads sung by Julia with deep feeling and enhanced by Lee's cello textures. Emotionally, Julia holds nothing back, and as a result a sorrow-drenched setting such as “Na strážnickém rynku” (War) achieves a level of intimacy that's naked in the extreme.

Each song impresses as its own distinct entity, a natural consequence of the fact that Úlehla and Bajakian allowed the content of the original material to guide their decision-making about the particular form a song would take; with lyrical content ranging between mundane domestic issues (“If only my old mother would send me to get grass / Truly I would gather a big basket for her”) and weightier matters (“Carnival, carnival, I killed my love / I killed her in the morning, she didn't like me”), it's not unusual for a raucous, full-band performance to be followed by one featuring guitar and voice only. In such manner, the two honour her great-grandfather's idea of the folk song as a living organism by breathing twenty-first century life into it.

May 2017