Perkelt : Recalling the Czech-ered past

Sometimes you just hear something that is so unusual and innovative that you just know that there must be an audience out there for it…….

Something like that happened to me the first time that I heard Perkelt. I was wandering around Stratford-Upon-Avon trying to visualise in my head the structure of a Shakespearean production that I was eager to develop ……. when I heard some folk music.

Now I’m not a huge folk music fan. I’m not pretending that I haven’t had brief periods in my life when I’ve dabbled in Fairport Convention or Joan Baez and I love Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den project but I’ve always thought folk music was at its best when it didn’t take itself too seriously and when it allowed the past to meet the present and have a good dialogue develop. But I’m never going to be one of those bearded guys in an Arran sweater and sandals.

But this music grabbed my attention. It was visually interesting (period costumes were the order of the day) and was played on archaic instruments that the musicians were clearly quite expert at playing. It had a strong sense of melody and rhythm. And the fact that Perkelt was busking in the middle of Stratford-Upon-Avon meant that all this potential was going unrealised………..

So when the dialogue between the instruments had gone silent, I decided to try and develop a dialogue between myself and the musicians. Only to find they were from the Czech Republic and their English ability was decidedly limited…. But not to be frustrated by such a little obstacle, I bought their cd and promised to buy them dinner if they would be willing to listen to a proposal I had.

To cut a long story short, a year later the Shakespearean production went ahead and featured a Czech ensemble called Perkelt performing music which whilst not English or Elizabethan was Czech Mediaeval and became a reasonable facsimile of the kind of music that you might expect to hear in the era when the Bard was performing the plays what he wrote (as Mr Wise would have put it)………

So when I come to review Perkelt’s second album, I must declare a vested interest because it is performed by a band who have become personal friends and whom I have worked with in a production in – which I was quite demanding of them and in which they went along with all my suggestions and orders whether they quite understood what I was trying to achieve or not.

But having told the backstory and declared my bias, the question remains, as it must be for all recordings, is it any good?

Well, the album opens with a piece called “Douce Damme Jolie”, music which originated in the 14th century and was composed by Guillame de Mauchat. This is very much the sound and territory that Perkelt have set out their stall to occupy. It is dominated by the flutes and whistles of Pavlina Bastlova and the percussion of Filip Tomanek. It is lively, ambient and seems to, indeed, capture the spirit of another age. For those from a jazz sensibility, there is room for Mr Tomanek to improvise a little on his percussion solo. Those with a rock background might find a Jethro Tull-esque feel to the flute and whistle work. Those who like folk music should be in paradise. There is more challenging territory ahead for those from an English-speaking background, but we could not have found a better starting place.

Track 2 is “Quen Serve Santa Maria”. All the lyrics here are sung in the original tongue and the simple sleeve comes with no lyrics. I’m guessing the song is a mediaeval piece about the Virgin Mary but you won’t need religious belief to enjoy this. The vocals are divided between Miss Bastlova and the imposing Stepan Honc who dominates the group visually when you see them in live performance. On most of this album Stepan is willing to remain a little in the background, preferring to provide a rhythm mode on guitar and cistra. This is a shame because he is an excellent musician but it allows more space for the fiddle work of Karel Novotny to shine alongside the pleasantly understated cello of new member, Matej Stepanek.

Moving on, the next piece explored by the band is “Bertaeyn”. This is another traditional melody from the Middle Ages. After two danceable melodies (one with vocal, one with instrumental), the band here bring another of their fortes to the feast with a thoughtful, introspective piece which allows all five members to wind their part of the melody around one another delightfully. The percussion and hand drums of Filip Tomanek are particularly well recorded and it is his playing here that I find most charming along with the viola of Karel which is wistful and romantic. Despite this being the longest track on the album so far, it fades a little too quickly, regrettably. The band need to have a little more confidence in their improvisational abilities at times.

An excellent wind introduction begins “Nouvel Amor”, courtesy of Pavlina, before Stepan ups the ante with a distinctive riff upon the cistra which is joined by Matej on the cello. As the track progresses Filip’s drum work comes more to the fore and in the conclusion the strings of Matej and Karel drive home a buoyant and successful recording.

Track 5 “A Virgen Mui….” is led by Pavlina’s vocals as she joins the drone of some kind of bagpipe in the intro. She is joined by Mr Novotny on the fidula for an attractive and compelling melody and vocal.

Next is “L’Homme Arme” which again is led by the strings of the band which are then joined by the percussion of Filip Tomanek before the flute of Miss Bastlova fills out the sound and the rhythm guitar-sound and roaring vocal of Stepan Honc join the mix. I mentioned earlier that in places there is an essence of Jethro Tull’s instrumental work about this recording and it is here that those comparisons are most telling. The combination of Pavlina’s flute and Stefan’s guitar echo the work of Messrs Anderson and Barre unconsciously before a brief vocal from Pavlina over Filip’s percussion brings the number to a very tasteful bridge before we rock back into full band territory for the coda.

Stepan Honc’s guitar work introduces “Benedetta” where he is joined, firstly, by Mr Novotny in working out the melody of this sublime piece. Again, it is Filip Tomanek who is crucial in widening out the sound with his drum work. I assume it is Jakub Strba who is responsible for the spoken word sections in the middle of this track where Pavlina also joins in providing an harmony over the band’s gentle soundtrack. The second section of this track is one of the hardest to appreciate for those who only have the English language to rely on, as the essence of what is being said is somewhat lost. I’m tempted to compare it to the “rebel song” that the Folksmen perform on the “A Mighty Wind” film soundtrack but those folk-Spinal Tap comparisons would be unkind to what is a beautiful and compelling track which may be a little ambitious for an international audience.

Track 8 is “A Que Por” which I think we used in our production of “Romeo and Juliet” recently. It is a sad and lamenting piece and Miss Bastlova’s flute work is achingly beautiful. She is joined on the opening by the strings  of Karel, Matej and Stepan for one of my favourites amongst the slower melodies that are present on this album. As the composition develops Mr Tomanek’s drum comes a little more to the fore. The arrangement is all the more telling because Filip’s work is gentler…… his percussion has powerfully driven much that has come before.

The final piece is all the more contrasting because it is opened and propelled by that very drum sound. Flute and strings join into the sound to bring a particular momentum which helps us to realise that the album is now coming to its conclusion. I think this one of the real developments between the first album (simply called “Perkelt”) and this their sophomore effort. There is a clearer direction to the sequence of the recordings which give this more of the feel and realisation of an album and an artistic whole. This final melody is as strong as the rest of an album which in truth drives us through a diversity of moods and melodies without ever encountering down points. This is a band with range…. No question that they have found a niche for themselves – albeit a niche which is relatively lowly populated in the music world …. But they have determined to explore and expand the area they have chosen and to not allow it to become a ghetto where they simply repeat themselves.

I remain unabashedly biased in favour of this band but I would recommend this album to all who like acoustic instruments, whose interests have expanded towards folk music and are keen to try and appreciate something different. This a stellar collections of recordings,  immaculately recorded and produced – particularly for a band on such a limited budget.

For next time…… a little more courage to expand their arrangements of their chosen melodies to allow for a little more improvisation and solos. I’m not expecting Perkelt to become jazz any time soon but some creative thought to develop that idea of “fusion” which is part of their logo would serve them well, if they are to avoid repeating themselves.

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