Last year, much of the underground music world was exposed to the genre identification of “Brechtian cabaret punk” via the slow groundswell of support for the Dresden Dolls. At the time, I assumed that it was one of those made-up genres that bands use to try and separate themselves from every other band in existence, and to the Dolls’ (and their fans’) credit, they seemed to live up to the label just fine. The Dolls are theatrical enough to be cabaret, their tempos and attitude often live up to the ‘punk’ label (even if their primary instrument is a piano), and as for the “Brechtian” part, well, they do seem kind of detached (not to mention vaguely German). Little did I know that there could possibly be another Brechtian cabaret punk outfit, one that fits the implications of that three-pronged genre far more comfortably than the Dolls ever have or, likely, could.
Enter Barbez. Barbez is so Brechtian, they cover a Brecht song (“Song of the Moldau”, originally orchestrated by Hanns Eisler). They’re so cabaret, their operatic lead vocalist is an alto with a background in dance. And they’re so punk, they have a full-time Theremin player. Don’t worry — there are guitars, too.
Tempting as it might be to toss such a combination of elements and influences into the novelty bin, Barbez has always avoided the trap of novelty via some excellent songwriting from Dan Kaufman and serious musicianship from the rest of the band. Insignificance, Barbez’s third album, also happens to be their most engaging yet, featuring fewer of the improvisational tangents that tend to lose listeners, and focusing on a devotion to rhythm and melody previously only hinted at in their work.
On first listen, the most striking element of Barbez’s art is the vocal prowess of Ksenia Vidyaykina, the Russian dancer-turned-singer who gives the album much of its eastern-European charm. As is to be expected, she winds her way through the two Russian folk songs of Insignificance effortlessly, particularly on “The Sea Spread Wide”, which starts innocently enough as a typical quiet folk song, but eventually starts thrashing and sputtering as if the sea itself is swallowing it. Adding to the mood is some vaguely tropical-sounding toned percussion and that Theremin, which alternates in its effect from that of a violin (in the quiet parts) to that of a sustained synthesizer line (in the loud parts). The Brecht tune, for its part, is oddly enough one of the more conventional tracks here, sung in English and featuring a lovely pipe organ. The combination of Theremin and pipe organ would make “Song of the Moldau” a perfect selection for your hipster Halloween party, as a matter of fact.
But I digress.
Kaufman’s originals, then, make their impact with non-traditional time signatures and many mood shifts. “Strange”, the second song on the album, is also the most dynamic. Nearly symphonic in its movement-based structure, it incorporates quietly plucked guitar, vibraphone, xylophone, and distorted guitar drone, all on top of a 14/8 time signature that occasionally veers into a slow, shoegazey rock beat (not to mention a bridge in 9/8). The production for “Strange” is top notch as well, layering instrumental lines on top of each other, giving each plenty of space in the mix to breathe, but never allowing the instruments to overtake Vidyaykina’s dramatic vocalizations. The band actually does quite well without Vidyaykina as well, allowing tracks like bassist Dan Coates’ arrangement of Alfred Schnittke’s “The Portrait” and Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne #3” to provide respite from Vidyaykina’s grave tones while still giving the listener something interesting to listen to. The Satie piece is especially fascinating, truly lovely in its subtlety, played as a trio of guitar, vibraphone and, yes, Theremin, adding a texture to the piece that likely would have made Satie himself smile just a little.
There are hiccups, to be sure. The eleven minutes of “Pain” are only for the most patient of listeners, as long stretches of unmelodic ambience can test one’s patience while waiting for the inevitable catharsis — a catharsis that, admittedly, turns out to be worth such a wait. Another unexpected time signature can’t keep “Fear of Commitment” from sounding a bit predictable by the time it gets past the first 30 seconds, even if its bridge is as traditionally ‘punk’ as anything else on the album. Still, such criticisms are mere nitpicks, and don’t actually detract from the final product, an album that plows headstrong into the unknown, aware of its own influences but never swayed by the influence (or fear) of outside opinion. With Insignificance, Barbez has created its masterpiece thus far, and anyone from the already converted to the merely curious would be well-advised to hear it.