Exit Music (For A Film)
Boy meets girl. Girl dies. Boy meets new girl. Boy meets sorcerer, and it all goes to shit. That’s the basic premise of Seregei Parajanov’s dizzying 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a fitting inspiration for adventurous Europhiles A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s impressive sixth full length, You Have Already Gone to the Other World. Set high up in the Carpathians amid the feuds and families of the Hutsul people who live there, the film is by turns romantic and brutal, gritty, and surreal. Parajanov’s camera is his greatest emotional tool, capturing every foreboding mountain expanse and heart-wrenching twist with haunting elegance.
Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost have followed in his footsteps with an album and pseudo-soundtrack that spans all the emotion and imagery of the film, with mercurial and often gripping results. The pair has been exploring the vast melodic wealth of Eastern Europe for over a decade, and their experience shows. Just as Shadows isn’t simply a story of life in the Ukrainian highlands, Barnes and Trost aren’t just trying to play folk music on Other World. Instead, the pair cultivates something less predictable, rooted in tradition but punctuated by modern drama and manipulation. Shadows aims for the gamut of emotions, weaving them together with otherworldly storytelling. A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s ambitions are no less grand.
Luckily, Barnes and Trost’s combined virtuosity allows them to wring a wealth of colors and tones from their limited musical palette, comprised mainly of violin and accordion alongside clattery percussion. Stringing together traditional folk tunes and original pieces, Other World manages to be engaging without straying far from its roots. The duo aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re examining how it was put together in the first place—on the best of their own compositions, they’ll deconstruct folk ballads and rebuild them with thundering, layered beats and subtle electronics. Much of the album’s mastery comes from behind the boards, where Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich stretches the limits of the band’s traditional material. He’s the cameraman to Barnes and Trost’s auteur, framing their obvious enthusiasm into something more direct and immediate.
Needless to say, it’s no easy listen. At a hair under 60 minutes long, You Have Already Gone to the Other World is daunting by nature of its sheer length, let alone its impenetrable subject material. The album opens with the mournful strings of “Open it, Rose” before layers of galloping drums fracture the relative peace and rush into the propulsive title track. The duo ratchet up the speed another notch on the following “Witches Theme”, where Barnes’ plucky accordian and Trost’s violin trade off lead duties at lightening pace without ever losing the song’s rumbling momentum. It’s at these moments of breakneck back-and-forth that the pair’s skill at their instruments and passion for their form shines through. It’s intoxicating stuff, but A Hawk and a Hacksaw aren’t speed freaks. The rapid pace isn’t so much a gratuitous exercise in proficiency as a means to whipping up an emotional stupor—it’s as spooky and disorienting as it is joyful.
As a hypothetical soundtrack, Other World is perhaps best listened to as a collection of these sort of hazy, emotive motions rather than as a set of individual songs. For the most part, most tunes draw heavily on the same instrumental and cultural sources as every other and plays them out on repeat—“mesmerizing” is often just cheap slang for repetitive and boring. Melodies wriggle around circuitously and build only to collapse again. But where their more mainstream fellows might strive for singular gushing moments or earworms, A Hawk and a Hacksaw are willing to let their moods meander and creep up on the listener.
To some extent, the point was always to make a soundtrack—background music—something more enchanting than enthralling. That being said, Trost and Barnes have packed the album with a few surprises—graceful chants, a pulsating noise breakdown, the shimmering “O Lord, Saint George, Bewitch Ivan, Make Him Mine”, which seems to pull more from Julianna Barwick’s ethereal electronic experiments than the music of the Carpathians. Just as Paranajov occasionally departed from the villages and rugged landscapes of eastern Ukraine for more metaphysical territory, these flights of fancy only add to Other World’s mystery. And there’s plenty of mystery to go around. In this way, a first listen through to Other World can feel a little like watching Shadows without subtitles: You can follow it on a gut level, privy to its most powerful moments, while the details and dialogue get lost in translation. But for an album as rich as Other World, it’s worth it—those powerful moments are spectacular enough to make up for whatever’s lost.