Hala Strana

Hala Strana

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Hala Strana Review

by Stanton Swihart

Hala Strana harks back to an era when psychedelic music had yet to congeal into an agreed-upon set of rigid stylistic parameters, when it was still a wide open universe of unforeseen possibilities, and when it brought a broad range of non-Western Hemispheric musics into its purview, then swirled them into something incomparably exotic in its own right. Steven R. Smith's long-held interest in, specifically, the folk musics of Central and Eastern Europe had been a thread throughout his previous group and solo recordings, but it found its richest manifestation in this eponymous debut outing from Hala Strana. The band made use of the theoretical components -- unusual scales and chord progressions, odd intervals and meters -- from the regional musical traditions of the former Yugoslavian republics and Eastern Bloc countries (and, on the gamelan-like "Quarter Mesto" and "Brickwork and Scoria," it sounds like Indonesia as well), and fashioned wonderfully drawn-out melodies from them that echo those original roots. Performed on an array of atypical instruments (harmonium, glockenspiel, melodica), the songs, all instrumentals, have a magnificent sweep and grandeur but also a Baroque sense of storytelling and commanding, sometimes mournful, introspection, a tension that persistently creates a mood of captivating dislocation. The beautifully bucolic Americana of "Cinnamon Shops," for instance, melts almost imperceptibly into the gothic raga "Stria," inviting you in with unassuming warmth but then keeping you at arm's length, underscoring a mystery that always rests just beneath the album's surface. There is a nobility, though, in the melodic structures on which songs such as "Jede Forman Dolinú" (a rearranged traditional), "The Strictness of Beauty," "Black Dust," and "Millstones" are built, and Hala Strana consistently locates the source of their esoteric power, the part that suggests specific cultural heritages; yet the brilliance of the album lies in where those evocations lead, to what ends they are taken -- luxurious, complicated cities of the imagination, landscapes at once tangible and unknowable.

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