Album Review: Black Ox Orkestar – Everything Returns : Formidable and forthright – the seminal avant folk ensemble reunite

The Breakdown

Their third post hiatus album Everything Returns emphatically confirms that, Black Ox Orkestar clearly still have something important to say. This is music with a serious intention. It brings an intensity and insight that is rare.
Constellation Records 9.0

It’s been over fifteen years since Black Ox Orkestar released their touchstone albums Ver Tantz (2004) and Nisht Azoy (2006), two works that navigated the dark folk/ post rock intersection with a genuine sense of purpose and distinct sonic foundation. Emerging from the Montreal indie scene the four members, Thierry Amar (upright bass), Scott Gilmore (vocals, cymbalom, piano and guitar), Gabriel Levine (clarinets, guitar), and Jessica Moss (violin), set out to embrace their Jewish roots through music making, distilling the raw power and emotion of traditional Yiddish and Balkan folk into their own politically potent, visceral sound.

Then inevitably life forces changed courses. While Amar and Moss became key players in the Montreal post-punk/avant classical scene with Godspeed You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion plus numerous other collaborations and solo releases, Levine and Gilmore further distanced themselves from any rock music conflation. Levine entered academia in Toronto to teach and research Theatre and Performance Art while Gilmore moved to Washington DC and became a Human Rights lawyer.

So, logistically, any Black Ox reunification was not going to be straightforward. Plus you couldn’t imagine these four people, so driven by a passionate sense of purpose, ever reforming unless they were sure that they could bring new perspectives to these turbulent times. Their third post hiatus album ‘Everything Returns’ available now on Constellation emphatically confirms just that, Black Ox Orkestar clearly still have something important to say.

The foundation of their new music may continue to draw from traditional tunes but the band remain committed to veering away from pedantic reproductions or bland fusion. The opening ‘Tish Nign’ provides a solemn but warming welcome , the heart wrenching melody repeatedly gripping whether communally sung or set free by Moss’s tearful violin. There’s a focus here on the simple and true, an insistence on locking into the mystical spirit of the original tune. ‘Skotschne’, taken from the same 1920’s collection of Ukrainian musicologist Moishe Beregovski, shows the contemporary sonic sensibilities of the band as they ease the old passages forwards. The yearning string harmonics add an eerie chill to the cymbalom patterning while guesting percussionist Pierre-Guy Blanchard brings a loose improvisational unpredictability to the procession.

The band have acknowledged that sourcing such intriguing traditional material in today’s saturated internet world is radically different to their previous library digs and tape swapping but they have remained diligent in finding those nuggets. Of course as impressive as these rich discoveries are, it’s the Black Ox way of re-imagining that is so distinctive. It would be hard not to find the shift from a lurch to leap in ‘Moldovan Zhok’ exhilarating or to stay uninvolved when the added brass band heft on ‘Oysgeforn/ Bessarabian Hora’ stomps home.

The reason for such dedication to these tunes of heritage is that they are the foundation for the depth and resonance of the Scott Gilmore originals that complete the rest of Everything Returns. It’s staggering to realise that he has been away from writing for so long when you encounter the power of these new songs. There has also been an instrumental shift with the song-writer using the piano more extensively here emphasising, along with Levine’s introduction of the bass clarinet, the chanson gravitas that broods beneath the sentiments.

The rolling swoon of ‘Viderkol (Echo)’ sees these elements woven together exquisitely in a torch song quivering with bluesy trills and expectation. It’s exquisitely balanced between the fall and rise, the clarity of Moss’s voice lifting the emotional chorus with a hint of Magnetic Fields levity. ‘Perpetual Peace’ similarly shudders with a contemporary dynamic, the pace set by Amar’s throbbing bass drive before opening out to something more orchestral and filmic. As Gilmore’s allegorical probing into the nature of peace unfolds, the coda grows ominously, swollen by a stunning post-rock, spiritual jazz, klezmer confluence.

Throughout Everything Returns Gilmore’s deep baritone vocal pulls at you with its charismatic delivery and challenging content. He narrates and observes in a poetic multi-language, fluently switching between Yiddish, Hebrew. French, Arabic and English line to line, phrase to phrase. Celebrating the multi-lingual, crossing cultural stigmas, reclaiming internationalism, perhaps more than ever before Black Ox Orkestar are pushing you to question where we are today.

So yes this is music with a serious intention strengthened by songs like the profound ballad ‘Mizrakh Mi Ma’arav’ voicing the refugee’s devastating experience through time and ‘Epigenetik’ which raises the issues of generational trauma in a complex, aching tango. But importantly Black Ox also signal hope through change. Their final lament, the simple and starkly beautiful ‘Lamed – Vovnik’ may find a weary Gilmore recognising ‘one fuck up and that’s all, everything folds’ but there’s still a suggestion, as the cymbalom rings out, that something more communal and just will emerge from the fall out. As the songwriter graphically notes, inevitably ‘the cleaners come after the curtain call’.

Everything Returns locates Black Ox Orkestar possibly at the end or maybe the beginning of another cycle. Whatever lays ahead this album’s importance will remain as it brings an integrity and insight that is rare. Bands may reunite through convenience or boredom, hungering for the good times or an ego re-boost, seeking to settle old scores or unpaid bills. For this band going through such rudimentary motions never ever came into it.

Get your copy of ‘Everything Returns’ by Black Ox Orkestar from your local record store or direct from:

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