Boomkat Product Review:
The wide-eyed, theatric art-pop and psych-folk wonders of Svitlana Nianio’s early band, Cukor Bila Smert’, come to light via Ukrainian reissue specialists Shukai on this mindboggling 31-track anthology of studio recordings made between 1990-1993, contorting gothic folk around brittle, calypso-inspired drum loops and oddball new wave bullets . Essential listening for anyone on the Finders Keepers/Stroom/Les Disques Du Crépescule axis, or into Broadcast.
Cukor Bila Smert’ (trans: Sugar — White Death) was a band formed by three graduates of Reinhold Glier Kyiv Academy of Music following the end of their studies in the summer of 1988. It was notably the maiden vehicle for Svitlana Nianio - then known as Svitlana Ohrimenko - with classmates Oleksandr Kohanovs’kyi and Tamila Mazur, soon to be joined by guitarist and artist Eugene Taran, who would help shape the group’s conceptual and aesthetic thrust toward enchanting forms of folk-pop psychedelia.
As revealed here for the first time outside Ukraine, Cukor Bila Smert’ would pursue a deeply uncanny sound, at once frothy, piquant, but unsettling, and largely defined by Svitlana’s distinctive soprano, singing lyrics penned by her and Eugene Taran over delightfully rickety drum machine rhythms and tremulous, bittersweet synths and keys in a style that evokes soundtracks to imaginary Soviet cosmonaut animations or the febrile dreams of young conservatoire students readying for exams.
The songs span some 90 minutes of music and 3 years of recordings, and are a world unto themselves, simultaneously unfurling ideas and binding you ever tighter into layers of incredibly rich, extended, storytelling melodies and skewiff harmonies that require little understanding of Ukrainian folklore in order to enjoy on their most immediate, abundant merits. We hear Svitlana’s classically trained voice puckered to all manner of instrumentation, from the purely synthetic to acoustic, in forms running from folkwise to (cloud) chamber baroque that arguably parallel new age ambient waft, but with a more pointed, far less hippyish purpose closer to avant classical composition, not strictly beholden to any strand.
The five-part 'Six Coral Devils' is a sprawling, theatrical suite that lurches from baroque, experimental folk, bursting with hotwired strings and jerky, off-kilter piano phrases, to rickety, drum-machine-led eccentricity in the concluding segment. Turbid epic 'Argolida' (aka 'Antinoy Is Leaving') was the band’s first recording as a duo, and is split into seven pieces: 'Part III' is dissonant and freewheeling, layering doddering, fudgy guitars and creeping synth vamps beneath Nianio's otherworldly echoes, and 'Part II' comes off like a twitchy nursery rhyme, with the vocals barely a hum over juddering synths. A couple of years later, in 1992, they tackled their next album 'All Secrets of a Poem', dubbing the material in Kharkiv with Oleksandr Vakulenko. This work is been split into four pieces here, and flashes the band's lighter side with feathery vocals and punctured beatbox loops.
The final third of the anthology is taken from Nianio and Taran's final album, 'Selo' (The Village), recorded in Poland straight to reel-to-reel. With additional cello provided by session player Boleslav Blazhchyk, these tracks are an apt swansong: 'Wartowyj (The Stand Guard)' and 'Obminaj Misce (Around This Place)' and others use synthesized harpsichord to remind us of a lost past, while Nianio dances wildly with some of her most acrobatic vocal phrases. Then there's 'Procesija Mertwych (Dead Ceremony)', a fuzzy, saturated left-pop marvel that reminds us of the rattly, surrealist psych deployments Broadcast would make their signature a few short years later, and 'Na Skryni (On The Basket)' is a churning, piano-led soundscape that's blessed with just punctuating breaths from Nianio.
'Recordings 1990-1993' is a sprawling, stunning retrospective that bottles the energy of one of Ukraine's most unique and quietly revolutionary underground outfits - time to get acquainted.