Nisht Azoy is a heavy album. Black Ox Orkestar’s contrabass player, Theirry Amar, has been a longstanding member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, while violinist Jessica Moss is part of Godspeed You!’s close relation A Silver Mt Zion. Orkestar’s take on traditional Yiddish music has the same portentous sense of weight and drama that runs through Godspeed You! like a quiet lead stream. The music is recognisably influenced by post-rock, yet you wouldn’t mistake Black Ox Orkestar for any other band. They’re the darkest, densest folk group around.
None of the songs on this album reach the epic length of Godspeed You!’s tracks, but the pacing is often slow and trance-like, as if the instruments would be content to keep moving in the same groove forever. The first piece, “Bukharian”, starts off with the solemn beat of a drum and a guitar, a melancholy violin, and a chanting chorus. “Di di di di”, they sing in mournful tones. At the end of the album, in “Golem”, Scott Levine Gilmore sings in a weeping voice over a loping cello and clarinet. “Golem” has a disconcerting way of stopping dead, pausing silently, then coming back to life again when you think it’s over.
Even when the band bring in a dance tune accompanied by clapping hands, as they do on “Violin Duet”, the quicker, upper layer of music is still affected by an undercurrent of seriousness. A different band covering the same piece would have tried to tease you out of your seat and make you skip. Black Ox Orkestar doesn’t. It asks you to pay attention.
After listening to this earnest noise, it’s not a surprise to read interviews conducted with Gilmore in 2004 when their last album, Ver Tanzt? was released, and discover that the band is a dedicated political animal. They’re pro-left, pro-Yiddish (“Regarding anti-globalisation, I would make of Yiddish a humble but sturdy cudgel with which to strike fear into the hearts of plundering multinational corporations”), and anti- the Israeli right wing.
They make this fairly clear in “Golem”, which seems to be using the old tale of the amoral clay soldier, created by the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to defend the Prague ghetto from outside attacks, in order to criticise the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestine.
“We made a new golem/ We created our guard/ Without soul and without mercy/ He watches the gate/ Like the cameras on the fence/ Like the barbs on the wire/ Like the concrete barricades/ He becomes landscape/ But no. It can’t go on/ No. It can’t go on/ Not like this…,” Gilmore sings, in Yiddish. In the traditional story the golem is destroyed when part of the word emet is removed from its forehead by the rabbi; in “Golem”, the golem itself “Wipes our brows/ He wipes away the Aleph/ And we stand as still as clay.”
Even if you didn’t have the translation on hand and couldn’t understand Yiddish, it would be evident from the way Gilmore sings that the lyrics mean something to him. His voice is not the trained cantor or cantor-like tenor which usually accompanies those North American bands that draw on traditional Eastern European Jewish music. It’s a rougher noise, filled with spit, and he throws himself into the songs with passion. Occasionally passion on its own fails him — when he clings to a long note in “Ikh Ken Tsvey Zayn” his voice shakes and threatens to slip out of tune and briefly it seems that a cantor might have been a good idea — but on the whole it’s an excellent thing: it makes the band sound as if they’re wrestling with the songs. There’s a trend in klezmer for bands to sail through difficult notes with flourishes of sparkling ease, and that can be exhilarating. But a dark trad-Yid group is a welcome change.