Boomkat Product Review:
Svitlana Nianio's 1994 masterpiece 'Transylvania Smile' is one of her earliest solo recordings, unreleased - in this final form - until now. Melting traditional Ukranian folk with piano and harmonium improvisations, Nianio pre-empts later wyrd folk developments with a charmed suite that connects outsider forest folk with layered vocal drones and choral motifs to captivating, heart-stopping effect.
Nianio cut her teeth founding the Ukrainian avant outfit Cukor Bila Smert who gained notoriety for their blend of gothy, new-wave-inspired instrumentation and surreal vocals, elements that still underpinned Nianio's music when she drifted into a solo career in 1993. 'Transylvania Smile’ was commissioned to accompany a performance by dancers who used flashlights to project shadows on the walls of Cologne's Urania theatre, and although Nianio traveled to Aachen to dub the material in a studio, it remained unreleased in its entirety until now.
'Transylvania Smile' offers clues to Nianio's musical evolution; her instrumentation is minimal, often just harmonium or piano, paired with distinct vocalisations, and, most importantly, unforgettable melodies, like some archetypal songbook drawing clear lines between new wave, avant electronics, baroque and slavic folk. The tracks aren't titled, rather split into episodes, beginning with 'Episode III', the sort of primal, lullaby-esque tune you feel you’ve known your whole life - like the roots of Grouper, Islaja or even Julia Holter, painted in broad strokes, blurred into hallucinatory lattices.
'Episode I', in contrast, is relatively upbeat, with Nianio using the harmonium to mimic an accordion. The instrument's brittle wheeze counters her sculpted voice, lodging itself between the cloister and the street corner, dancing between waltzing chords and shimmering trills. The sacred air of church music is never far from Nianio's compositions either; on 'Episode II' she sings monastic phrases over harmonium wails that sound like a pipe organ, and on the album's concluding part 'Episode VII', she improvises chaotically as she sings clear, jubilant chorals. 'Episode IV', meanwhile, is like some magical, early music re-enactment of The Stranglers 'Golden Brown'.
If the last few years have seen young avant-minded composers digging into the history of sacred music for inspiration, it's intriguing to find an artist making those same investigations a couple of decades earlier. Needless to say, if you've spent time poring through the STROOM, Fonal or Recital catalogs, you absolutely need this one in yr life.