What's your favorite sandwich filling? Chicken and bacon? Beef and horseradish? Egg and cress? Smoked salmon and cream cheese? Or do you prefer a nice, juicy burger with pickle and all the trimmings? Whatever your favorite filling is, then Zlye Kukly's At The End of Days is its musical equivalent. The filling is absolutely delicious. Trouble is, the slices of bread, or the roll, are made from some ingredients that are most unusual and which you've not tasted before. You bite into it carefully, gingerly; but remain uncertain; and the temptation is to spoon the filling out and just eat that separately.
That's exactly where I am with At The End of Days. From "Blind Man" through to "Babylon Is Doomed" inclusive I am wrapped in bliss; but I have yet to come to terms with the opening and closing pairs of tracks.
At The End of Days has been a strange experience all round. I have found it more difficult to find information on Zlye Kukly than on any other artist I've yet reviewed. Their MySpace page is hardly a mine of information, they are the only artists on the MALS label for which no biographical information is available on their website and the band's own website has no prepared English translation (and the Google translator is hardly the Babel fish!).
As far as I can gather they are a Russian band based in Jerusalem. At The End of Days is their fourth album and is originally a 2006 release. They have subsequently issued another album called Strange Tomorrow. At The End of Days is the only music of theirs that I've heard. Their soundscape's origins are in folk music but whether it is Russian folk music or traditionally Jewish folk music I am not sure. The band uses many traditional instruments in arranging their compositions: flutes, mandolin and violin and these significantly color the soundscape, despite the use of the more common instruments associated with "rock" bands: drums, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, keyboards, piano. So I guess what you end up with is a kind of progressive folk-rock whose origins I've still not sussed out entirely to my satisfaction. (I've just had another nibble at that slice of bread but I still can't identify the flavor, let me just have another mouthful of that yummy filling!). Zlye Kukly are dominated by Fred Adra. He sings, plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and percussion; as well as writing all of the music on At The End of Days and some of the lyrics too. It's his band, for sure. However, as I've already said before and you can deduce for yourselves from the lists of instruments, there are significant musical contributions from others; most significantly from Alexander Waits (flutes), Arie Livshin (mandolin) and Natasha Belenkaya-Greenberg, whose vocal performances in particular on "Legend" and "Babyylon Is Doomed" bring scintillating bright musical colors to the music, like a spectacular aurora display.
"The favorite filling" - "Blind Man" has beautiful melodic phrasing in the instrumental and vocal parts; "We Kept Watch Over Time" features piano, vibraphone (?) and more strong melodies; "He Walks Along the Seashore" is totally gorgeous, opening with sweet acoustic guitar with piano and synth accompaniment; "Legend" has layered vocal parts including one part that sounds like a prayer and is extremely effective in the musical context; "Teddy Bear" has a prominent electric guitar part (unusual in this soundscape, this is not "rock") and an effective synthesizer part and "Babylon is Doomed" is another totally lush composition with Natasha's incantation bringing it to another level. Yum yum!!
"The bread" - The declamatory vocal in the opening section to "Mad Theater", the rhythm, the mix of percussive and short-sustain instruments, it's something I need to come back to. "Strange Tomorrow" is easier on my ears but still strange, the mandolin and what sounds like tubular bells battling it out in there. "Star Path" is heavy n the bass drum again, as is "Mad Theater" and "At the End of Days", well, it's leaving me a little lost at present.
I listen to this album and I think: how can I adore the "filling" and yet be so unsure about the "bread"? It can't be that the music is bad or even unpleasant - the "filling" leaves me convinced that's not the answer. It may be cultural - the singing is in Russian (ok, there's a translation in the CD booklet, but it's not quite the same), some of the instruments are not the most common and if the original folk tradition is Eastern then it all adds up to an unfamiliarity with patterns and sounds that means that it takes time to "switch on to the groove". Perhaps it's something else. Whatever the explanation, I think it will take time to sink in, which I guess it will eventually because I intend to taste the "filling" again and as I'm one of these sticklers for etiquette that doesn't like spooning it out, I'm also going to have to taste that "bread" again!
1) Mad Theater (3:44)
2) Strange Tomorrow (6:30)
3) Blind Man (5:04)
4) We Kept Watch Over Time (3:49)
5) He Walks Along the Seashore (5:28)
6) Legend (2:31)
7) Teddy Bear (4:59)
8) Babylon is Doomed (7:00)
9) Star Path (5:22)
10) At the End of Days (6:13)