Don’t envy the band that sets out to make accordions look cool. After reaching a peak of popularity during the first half of the 1900s, the instrument has spent decades watching its reputation precipitate slowly into the doldrums.
Once it had the distinction of being a public nuisance. The head of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer tried to ban it altogether, crying, “now is the time to build a dam against the flooding of our musical life by the accordion;” but by now the dam has been built, or, rather, it has accreted slowly as other instruments have crept in and forced the accordion back. Our musical life is in more danger of being flooded by guitars and rappers than accordions. The portability that was once one of its assets has been surpassed. If you want to carry music around there are easier ways to do it than strapping bellows to your chest.
So putting out an album of experimental accordion music is a gutsy move, and not one that is likely to earn you a lot of money. Marcin Galazyn, Janusz Wojtarowicz, and Pawel Baranek carry the 51-minute CD almost single-handedly, with only a pair of guest musicians appearing on “Helicopter” and “You Dance (Techno Version)” to give them a hand. The front cover shows them sitting in front of a blue computer screen with their Pigini Super Serius Bayans held enormously in front of their chests. The bayan is a Russian style of accordion with a full, well-modelled tone — when it comes to the accordion being unpopular, Russia is an exception to the rule; their composers include it in ensembles, and a good classical accordion is an expensive investment. The Trio lie back under the weight of these things like men who have just had fridges dropped in their laps.
Play-Station takes its themes from the video games they played as teenagers in the arcades of their native Poland. Someone who knows the old arcades better than I do could probably go through this album and pick out the game that matches each tune. “Chinatown” has a little-person peppiness that sounds like a platformer, something decorated with Mario Brothers colours. In “Yellow Trabant,” a recurring motif mimics the strained zoom of a car in a racing game taking a difficult corner. The pieces are richer and busier than you might imagine, and the noises the Trio wrestle out of their accordions are amazingly varied. “Game Over” is built around such perfect imitations of Space Invaders sound effects — the blunt blit-blip, the descending rills of notes, the electric fuzz-bomb of a ship exploding — that I could have sworn they were mixing it together from a inventory of samples.
Asphalt Tango must have realised that listeners would be sceptical because they’ve added a note to the back of the CD case, to wit: “This is a 100% acoustic recording with no electronic effects of any kind. (except track 12)” (Track 12 is a “techno version” of track two, “You Dance.”) Even the way one musician’s finger blaps on the accordion buttons in “Game Over” echoes the anxious tempo of my thumb, long ago, on the business end of a joystick. The album is fast, but not hot and fast; its energy is the nattering, urgent speed of those Space Invader aliens crowding onto the screen, a temperate haste. There have been other experimental accordion albums released in the past (Kimmo Pohjonen’s Kluster earned a “Recommended” listing from Songlines magazine back in 2002) but none that have manipulated the sounds of computer games into compositions quite like these.
Inventively written, and rendered with evident technical skill, Play-Station is good enough to transcend novelty status, but there is something about the album that prevents it from being great rather than simply fun and interesting. Have Motion Trio been so busy “helping the accordion make a brilliant entry into the 21st century” that they have sacrificed some humanity along the way; have they preferred brashness to introspection and cleverness over love? Yes, it’s something like that. Still, full marks for being original. You’re not going to meet a Polish video game accordion album every day, so you might as well enjoy it when you do.