Coals Sanatorium

Poland’s Coals Seek Solace in Relaxing Melancholy on ‘Sanatorium’

Polish duo Coals always looks for something new in music, and Sanatorium is no different. But in the lyrics and emotions, it’s a return to the past.

[PIAS] Recordings Poland
22 March 2024

In Poland, everyone knows what a sanatorium is: a place of physical and mental regeneration, isolated from the world, resembling a spa resort, but with medical services. It is one of the few Soviet inventions that survived the USSR, and more importantly, not as a nightmare from the past but as a desired place of holistic healing, existing almost beyond time and space.

However, you don’t go to a sanatorium for a holiday, but to improve your health. Leisure in nature is usually accompanied by running away from pain and sadness, diving into melancholy, contemplating the past, and setting goals for the future, and it all perfectly fits also the third Coals album, Sanatorium. Optimism emerges from the medium tempos and ethereal vocals, yet the emotional burden is still attached to the core of the music. There’s joy, but the lips singing about it won’t bend into the smile yet again, an expression that the facial muscles have not exercised for months or even years. There’s peace, but still in the phase of regeneration, not blissfulness.

Lyrics written in Polish, something Kacha Kowalczyk had previously avoided, additionally emphasize the intimacy of this record, and today, singing in your own non-English language is no longer such a difficult barrier to overcome in reaching an international audience as it was ten years ago, when the two started. This seems to be a necessary move because how can we talk about the past in a language other than the one in which it was written? On the other hand, the singer’s voice channels the meaning of the words so effectively that you don’t need to understand a single sentence to interpret the intentions properly.

Sanatorium opens with the lines: “Empty roads in front of me, an asphalt lake / The legs were shaking too much, the body – a stone statue / Well, where? Where should I go?” in both energetic and thoughtful “Nowy świat (A New World)”, which leaves no doubt that the work on recovery is still ongoing. This dual state between “health” and “illness” fills almost the entire record, but there are some moments – especially by the end – when feel-good thoughts prevail. The best example is “Kurort (Resort)”, where the lyrics about overcoming difficulties (“No matter what time brings me / I don’t want to dance in hell anymore / I’m sitting in the orchard, light thoughts”) are accompanied by synthetic fanfares full of hope.

Duality can also be found in the musical layer, but this is not unique to Sanatorium only; it’s a characteristic feature of the whole Coals discography. Producer Lucassi is a master of self-sabotage – as soon as the beats form a rhythm that makes the body vibrate uncontrollably or intervals shape a catchy melody, he immediately hits the brake and changes direction. If only they could remove the reverb and distortion from the catchy chorus of “Reflektory (Headlights)”; if they could add verses that are not dimming but stimulating to the expressive instrumental parts of “Wuj (Uncle)”; if “Dzwony (Bells)” had adopted the dream pop aesthetic even more distinctly; if the exuberant (or even aggressive) “Batalija” didn’t end after just a minute and a half before it really gets going; if “Plaza” turned into more ASMR areas similar to Billie Eilish calm bangers… What would really happen if all these changes were introduced to Coals’ music? Probably just another incarnation of the dream-ambient-art-pop archetype created a few years ago. The one which lures with the promise of success, but once you fall into the trap, it offers nothing more than a place in the ever-lengthening queue of those waiting for their chance.

Kacha and Lucassi have too high ambitions to repeat clichés. They understand perfectly well that it is difficult to say something new and original today, but that doesn’t mean it is necessary to side with one of the past trends and practice necromancy over its corpse. Music has lost its chronology. The belief that bebop arose solely from New Orleans jazz, post-punk solely from punk rock, and Eurodance solely from rave has always been a gross oversimplification (any aesthetic transformation needs more than a simple cause-and-effect relationship), but today more than ever before, everything can coexist at the same time, both in harmony with the historical order (which was inviolable until the end of the 20th century) and in countless inter-genres and inter-epoch configurations.

On the one hand, Zeal & Ardor combine blues with black metal (although in proportions that from album to album increasingly favor the latter) as a shocking contrast; on the other, Twin Temple bring the textbook example of doo-wop, but with lyrics about black magic and burning the Bible. On the one hand, 100 Gecs create kaleidoscopic songs that might surprise listeners with nu-metal, ska, or cheesy pop from the 1990s influences; on the other, Katharina Rosenberger knows how to make 16th-century madrigals feel up to date. The egalitarian nature of the Internet (in terms of availability, not necessarily earning money) warped the continuous line of ideas resulting from one another – now each point marked on it lays at the same distance from all the others, and Coals skillfully mastered moving freely in this new reality.

Furthermore, the two know how to hack it in a more subtle way than a hyperpop genre collider, in which sometimes the forcible fusion of extremes becomes an end in itself and leaves little room for developing one’s own identity. The past and the future are clearly outlined in the 14 songs from Sanatorium, but they are not a reflection of the retrofuturistic desire to spread nostalgia while compulsively looking for another batch of new releases coming out next Friday. Coals’ method is far from playing a quiz show in which listeners have to guess the source of densely accumulated references. It is a very precise, patiently prepared mix, free from genre crumbs crackling under the teeth, and refined to perfection on the third album.

Thanks to this, Kacha and Lucassi can fill the still poorly developed space not of what was and is trying to come back, not what seems like it’s about to happen, but the always insufficiently appreciated present. Their method for originality is to create a collage of influences that no one has ever put together before. Additionally, this subjective eclecticism is formed anew on every album, not only by adding new elements but also by subtracting the worn-out ones that at first glance may have seemed immanent to Coals sound (for example, there are no trap beats at all on this record).

The aura of the Sanatorium is peculiar and has intensifying properties – if you immerse yourself in it while in a melancholic state, music will additionally boost the mood, but if you listen to it on a better day, cheerfulness might be extended for a longer period. It’s the perfect music for dancing, sliding under the blanket, staring into the distance, and forgetting about the whole world around you. To say that it is more mature would take away too much from Coals’ earlier albums, but it certainly illustrates that stage of life when, instead of a club party or an exotic trip, you dream of a quiet week at the resort.

Jarosław Kowal is editor-in-chief of Soundrive, one of Poland’s most opinion-forming music websites, curator of the Jazz Jantar and New Music Days festivals, co-founder of indie cassette tapes label Iskra, and music journalist since 2006.

RATING 8 / 10