In art, the qualities of novelty and longevity often seem at odds. Albums and artists bank on being different for difference’s sake or so on-trend that they blend into a crop of contemporaries.
Not so with Ormenion, the international debut of Greek quintet Evritiki Zygia. Locally active for over a decade in their home region of Evros, the band are known for their work in performing in musical styles from the region of Thrace, which spreads across the modern-day borders of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. As they continue to lift traditions of the past, they bring ancient Thrace to the present. Evritiki Zygia employ centuries-old instruments like the melodic, flute-like kaval, hide-based gaida bagpipe, Thracian lyre, and double-headed davul drum with electronic drones and embellishments by way of Yorgos Drikoudis’ weighty work on Moog and CRB-Diamond 800.
The result is psychedelic folk at its most spellbinding as Evritiki Zygia delivers on promises of trance and dance set by the first heavy synth chords of opening track “Fog”, a song that eschews stagnant notions of atmosphere in favor of embracing its wildness. Flute and bagpipe rush together in synchrony as drums drive the song forward, sounding a lively image of brisk morning chill pouring from mountaintop to coastline. By the end, every instrument is part of a feverish ecstasy. Percussionist Aggelos Stratos’ frenzied beats cut through polyphonic swirls of bagpipe (courtesy of Spyros Stratos’ impressive lung capacity and brilliantly nimble musicianship) and kaval (Stratis Pasopoulos alternates thoughtfully between sharp, fast runs and empowering harmonies).
Like “Fog”, “Maritsa” is one of the group’s original pieces, titled with the local name for the river that runs from Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains toward the Aegean Sea, becoming the border between eastern Greece and western Turkey in the process. Undergirded by a fundamental from the synths, the bagpipe lays out a melodic motif; the kaval follows, as does Alexios Partinoudis on bowed Thracian lyre. As the drums speed up, the song peaks, reaching a climax marked by an acid-drenched electronic iteration of the melody, haunting in the best ways.
Reverberating percussion opens an arrangement of the folk tune “5 Nights” like a racing pulse; impassioned vocals sing a song of longing over lyrical strings, verses alternating with bars of intricate bagpipe-and-kaval interplay. Partinoudis shines with a fiery lyre solo just over halfway through the piece, leading to a final thrilling passage in which every instrument comes together once more. Like “5 Nights”, “Karsilamas” has deep roots. A slower piece that picks up as it gains momentum over time, it allows each musician to demonstrate their finesse both by improvising in turn and by performing together.
Evritiki Zygia play it close to their roots here, then immediately return in full, to innovative, psychedelic force for the final three tracks of the album. “Ormenion” includes a particularly funky organ slide. “Anastenariko” is a traditional piece where double stops on the lyre are meant to induce such trance that the listener can walk on hot coals (the kaval here flutters like a forest’s worth of birds). “The Sun Is Setting Down” is a final celebration of music, dance, and the communion therein.
For early adopters of the various trends in world music, some things about Evritiki Zygia’s music will sound familiar. Their Thracian roots are the same as those found in many a Soviet-era Bulgarian folk revival repertoire, performed by what would become internationally acclaimed state-sponsored choirs. The Evritiki Zygia treatment of Thracian traditions, though, is unlike anything you’re likely to find on a new age compilation. Ormenion has a ferocity to it that speaks to the tenacity of old traditions as well as to a progressive spirit – overall, a testament to resiliency. It’s nothing short of hypnotic.